April 24, 2017 by libroshombre
A recent round of reading has left me ready to revive the seventeenth-century British political party known as “the Abhorrers,” though under a different banner. In Edward Shelton’s 1861 political handbook, “The Historical Fingerpost,” he defines the “Abhorrers and Petitioners – Two great parties in opposition in the time of Charles the Second. Abhorrers were attached to the Court … their abhorrence being those who endeavored to encroach upon the royal prerogative.” What I’m abhorring is learning about two massive modern book burnings this late in life.
Bill Bryson’s always an entertaining read, and I was enjoying his book, “One Summer: American 1927,” when I reached the chapter on Big Bill Thompson, the gloriously corrupt mayor of Chicago who was re-elected that year after a four-year hiatus. “Chicago was to corruption what Pittsburg was to steel,” Bryson wrote, “It refined and cultivated it, and embraced it without embarrassment.” He noted that “Thompson was an oaf from head to toe,” and to prove it, Thompson’s “first action on reelection was to set about removing all treasonous works from the city’s school and libraries.” The man Thompson appointed to head this effort was a theater owner named Sport Hermann, who in turn appointed “a body called the Patriot’s League to decide which books were objectionable … but he admitted when pressed that he had read none of the books he was proposing to burn – it is entirely possible that he had never read a book of any kind – and further admitted that he couldn’t remember the names of any of the people advising him.” Nonetheless, after collecting untold hundreds of books, Hermann had the Cook county executioner light the bonfires.
The second disturbing event was described in Karen Armstrong’s excellent “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence,” which I found to be one of the most informative books I’ve ever read. Armstrong explores implications linking organized religion and violence, and her global, pan-historical analysis proves that if the principal tenets of every major religion were followed, there’d be far less violence in the world, despite mankind’s inherent ferocious proclivities. Towards the book’s conclusion, Armstrong describes the horrible destruction of knowledge that was part of the Bosnian War in the 1990s.
Despite a long history of peaceful cohabitation between various religious groups in the Balkans, Serbian leader Milosevic needed three years “of relentless propaganda” to stir things to a fever pitch. “Significantly,” Armstrongwrites, “the war began with a frantic attempt to expunge documentary evidence that for centuries Jews, Christians, and Muslims had enjoyed a rich coexistence. A month after the Bosnian declaration of independence, Serbian militias destroyed the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo, which housed the largest collection of Islamic and Jewish manuscripts in the Balkans, burned down the National Library and Museum, and targeted all such manuscript collections for destruction.”
How did that astounding, albeit disgusting, proof of the power of words slip by my awareness? It resounds now after learning the American Library Association is condemning as outright censorship President Trump’s ordering federal agencies to destroy reams of documents that contradict his personal opinions on subject like climate change, and to severely restrict the public’s access to important scientific information that was openly available heretofore. The administration may fear and despise immigrants, but Irish, Italian, Jewish, Central European, African, Arab, and countless other new arrivers in America have historically found welcome havens in public libraries. In fact, even before the administration’s recent travel restrictions were announced, over half of all immigrants were already visiting public libraries at least once a week, according to TheGuardian.com.
Now librarians are ramping up efforts to meet that constituency’s informational needs while providing assistance to everyone on how to recognize misinformation and fraudulent “news.” Modern public libraries not only aggregate information affordably for their communities, they also help people navigate the bewildering plethora of intentionally misleading information, and educate patrons on how to do it for themselves.
Similar events were afoot in 1939 when American librarians crafted the Library Bill of Rights. Its original introduction began, “Today indications in many parts of the world point to growing intolerance, suppression of free speech, and censorship affecting the rights of minorities and individuals.” Sounds awfully familiar. Sad.