“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.”—Ray Bradbury
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. For example, take the recent firestorm over a New York Post editorial cartoon by Sean Delonas depicting a chimp, alluded to as the author of the stimulus package, being gunned down by police officers.
The day after the piece was published, 200 protesters picketed the Post’s offices, enraged over what they considered a racist slur against President Obama. The Post apologized, pointing out that the cartoon was an allusion to a much-publicized incident in which a chimp that had badly mauled a Connecticut woman was shot to death by police.
Refusing to be mollified, the NAACP has called for a boycott of the paper and its parent company News Corp and for Delonas and editor-in-chief Col Allan to be fired. Not to be outdone, the Rev. Al Sharpton has launched a petition campaign to urge the FCC to step in and take away the waiver allowing News Corp to operate two newspapers and two TV stations in the same city. His rationale, as he explained to CNN, is essentially that News Corp shouldn’t have the waivers if they “don’t understand what would offend a large amount of African-Americans — and whites, by the way.”
Fired up by the black leadership’s charges of racism, students at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn have actually resorted to burning copies of the Post and have called on their classmates to shut down their MySpace pages.
This type of reaction is typical of the totalitarian democracy in which we now live, and the chimp cartoon 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 so-called responsible adults must now do in order to ensure that no one is offended.
The real issue here has little to do with racism and everything to do with free speech and our commitment, as a free and open society, to tolerate offensive ideas. 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 Delonas’ cartoon was crude and lacking in sound judgment. Yet don’t we have a particular duty to protect those like Delonas—those politically incorrect few who, while they might be perceived as irresponsible and lacking in judgment, are in fact testing our constitutional fortitude?
The sensible response should have been to use the Delonas incident as a springboard for a meaningful discussion on race relations. However, what we got were knee-jerk reactions by people who were quick to take offense and slow to find real solutions to the underlying problems. The consequence of such behavior is an increasing tendency to pre-censor unpopular and detested ideas instead of discussing them and, thus, dealing with them head-on.
However, by allowing the monster of political correctness to trash our First Amendment right to free speech, we slam the door on open debate and dialogue. Ultimately, intimidating people into silence will lead to more grievous problems. Delonas’ cartoon was crude. But to totally dismantle a newspaper or destroy Delonas’ life is inimical to democracy. Call for an apology. But don’t suppress free expression. And, above all, don’t annihilate the man or the free press.
If people fear losing their jobs or having their lives ruined for uttering offensive remarks, they become afraid to speak. Without a public outlet for their thoughts—hateful or otherwise, they fester in secret. This is where most violent acts are born. And that is why the First Amendment in its protection of speech is so important. It acts as a steam valve to let those who hate release their pent-up anger.
The First Amendment also protects against the mob mentality. In fact, the backlash against Sean Delonas represents our politically correct society’s constant attempts to control the minds of those who persist in thinking that we are a free people. Censoring unpopular speech sends the message that if we don’t toe the line, our lives can, and will, be ruined. As a consequence, it not only destroys human beings, it tells us that we can’t think for ourselves, we can’t hold certain views and we can’t speak freely.
Ray Bradbury was right. There is more than one way to burn a book. In writing about his own experiences with “butcher/censors,” as he termed them, Ray Bradbury remarked, “[I]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.” Did Bradbury dare use such words as “dwarf,” “orangutan” and “simpleton”? Who will be offended by that?
This overblown debacle clearly illustrates how far we’ve fallen as a free society. America once symbolized the very essence of free speech, where society’s most arduous and insidious ideas could be put to the test in what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes coined as the “free marketplace of ideas.” Today, however, America has been captured by the chains of political correctness and polite society, or what we might call fascism with a smile. At least some will go to the guillotine grinning.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book The Change Manifesto (Sourcebooks) is available in bookstores and online. He can be contacted at [email protected]. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.