We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.

–  Arundhati Roy

The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. It is through these invisible holes in reality that poetry makes it way—certainly for women and other marginalized subjects and for disempowered and colonized peoples generally, but ultimately for all who practice art at any deep levels. The impulse to create begins—often terribly and fearfully—in a tunnel of silence.

“Arts of the Possible,” Adrienne Rich

It is the morning of November 11, 2021, and I spend some of that time creating gentle memes to post in honor of Kurt Vonnegut’s day of birth:

I wanted to highlight Vonnegut’s career-long plea for a secular kindness, rooted in his faith in humanism, and I have long admired Vonnegut as an anti-war crusader.

Celebrating the birthday of a person after their death is always bittersweet, but on this morning, the act was awash in a very ugly sort of irony. As I loaded The State (Columbia, SC) web page, I saw this as the lead story:

My home state of South Carolina is heavily conservative—first to secede and uniformly conservative in politics throughout the decades of Democratic control of the South and then Republican in the wake of Strom Thurmond changing parties and later Ronald Reagan leading a conservative Christian shift in the South.

Gov. McMaster is not often “first to” about anything, but he is an uncritical and resolute soldier in the Republican culture war regardless of what that means.

Vonnegut—while alive and since his death—has often had his works challenged and even banned; one of the most enduring things he ever wrote, in fact, was a response to censorship:

In October of 1973, Bruce Severy — a 26-year-old English teacher at Drake High School, North Dakota — decided to use Kurt Vonnegut‘s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, as a teaching aid in his classroom. The next month, on November 7th, the head of the school board, Charles McCarthy, demanded that all 32 copies be burned in the school’s furnace as a result of its “obscene language.” Other books soon met with the same fate. On the 16th of November, Kurt Vonnegut sent McCarthy the following letter. He didn’t receive a reply.

Letters of Note

In part, Vonnegut replied as follows:

Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.

I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?…

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us….

If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

I am very real, Kurt Vonnegut, November 16, 1973

Reading about the censorship wildfire spreading to SC on Vonnegut’s birthday adds insult to injury, but this is not mere partisan politics, not something as innocuous or abstract as a “culture war.”

Just as Vonnegut ends his letter with “I am very real,” I want to stress that the missionary zeal behind removing and burning books from school libraries is also “very real”:

Calls for censorship, book removal from school libraries, and book burning are the logical next step in the Republican/conservative assault on Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project; at the core of this movement is a misguided demand for parental rights that grows beyond any parents’ children to all children.

Some parents and political leaders on the Right have mistaken Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as a manual for partisan politics instead of, as Neil Gaiman (born a day before Vonnegut 38 years later) explains in the 60th anniversary edition of the novel:

This is a book of warning. It is a reminder that what we have is valuable, and that sometimes we take what we value for granted….

People think—wrongly—that speculative fiction is about predicting the future, but it isn’t; or if it is, it tends to do a rotten job of it….

What speculative fiction is really good at is not the future but the present—taking an aspect of it that troubles or is dangerous, and extending and extrapolating that aspect into something that allows the people of that time to see what they are doing from a different angle and from a different place. It’s cautionary.

Fahrenheit 451 is speculative fiction. It’s an “If this goes on…” story. Ray Bradbury was writing about his present, which is our past.

Introduction, Fahrenheit 451, Neil Gaiman

In my early days as a public high school English teacher, I had a book challenge targeting John Gardner’s Grendel, but it was clearly mostly about attacking me as a young teacher. While I think we are careless and even cavalier in the U.S. about any parents’ right to control what their children read and learn, I experienced first-hand the power of a few parents to determine what all students read and learn.

I must return to Vonnegut here and stress, “If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.”

Removing books from libraries, banning books from schools, and book burnings are never justified; these are acts of tyranny, of fascism—and not in any way a gesture of what we like to call “American.”

There is no individual freedom without the freedom of the mind. Banning a book is closing the mind.

In Athens-based R.E.M.’s “Its the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” the lyrics include a verse that is haunting in 2021:

Six o’clock, TV hour, don’t get caught in foreign tower
Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn
Lock him in uniform, book burning, blood letting
Every motive escalate, automotive incinerate
Light a candle, light a votive, step down, step down
Watch your heel crush, crushed, uh-oh
This means no fear, cavalier renegade and steering clear
A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies
Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives, and I decline

“Its the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”

The Republican assault on teaching, learning, reading, and thinking is nothing more than a “tournament of lies” aimed at partisan political power.

Simply put, censorship and book burning are UnAmerican; to ban a book is to dismantle the American Dream.


Resources

Statement on Censorship and Professional Guidelines (NCTE)

Guidelines for Dealing with Censorship of Instructional Materials (NCTE)

NCTE Intellectual Freedom Center

The Students’ Right to Read (NCTE)

See Also

The 451 App (22 August 2022)

Teen’s Eyes Begin Glowing Red While Reciting Forbidden Knowledge From Book On Critical Race Theory