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Banning books is a bad sign for democracy

Banning books is a bad sign for democracy

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  • Historically speaking, banning books is a precursor to unspeakable horrors

In case you missed it, a government commission is trying to ban and purge books. The Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (KWF) ordered the pullout and halting of publication of five books in a memo dated Aug. 9, claiming these written works contained “subversive” and “anti-government” content. 

According to the memo, the reason behind banning these books is that they contain “political, subversive and creative literary works with subliminal ideologies that encourage to fight the government.” The memo also cited Section 4 of Republic Act 11479 or the Anti-Terrorism Act, specifically the section on inciting to commit terrorism, as a reason for the bans. 

The five banned books in question are “Teatro Politikal Dos” by Malou Jacob, “Kalatas: Mga Kuwentong Bayan at Kuwentong Buhay” by Rommel Rodriguez, “Tawid-diwa sa Pananagisag ni Bienvenido Lumbera: Ang Bayan, ang Manunulat, at ang Magasing Sagisag sa Imahinatibong Yugto ng Batas Militar 1975-1979” by Dexter Cayanes, “May Hadlang ang Umaga” by Don Pagusara, and “Labas: Mga Palabas sa Labas ng Sentro” by Reuel Aguila.

Since the news broke, several panels in the House of Representatives have called for an inquiry on the banning of these books. Albay 1st District Representative Edcel Lagman filed a resolution that declares the memo’s unconstitutionality. In the resolution, he stated that the edict was “unmitigated censorship” and a “wanton assault on academic freedom.”

He further argued that the basis of the foundation of the KWF was to promote and preserve the Filipino language, but they have no authority or power to destroy and censor writings in Filipino. 

Sadly, the practice of banning books isn’t uncommon. All over the world, the banning of “subversive” literature has been called into action during uncertain political times. 

While it may not surprise anyone that Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia have banned books, citizens of democracies like the United States and our own country have greeted news of book banning with shock and disbelief. 

Free speech has been a tenet in our constitution since it was written in 1987. The ability to speak out and critique the government is a right and responsibility of any citizen. So why are parts of the government trying to curb the right to say what’s what? 

A brief history of banning books

Historically speaking, book banning is a bad sign—to say the very least. According to some accounts, the practice of banning and burning books can be traced all the way back to 213 B.C. Chinese emperor Shih Huang Ti ordered that records before his reign be destroyed, supposedly in an attempt to create a new narrative about himself.  

In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church published a list of banned books under the popehood of Pope Paul IV. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum was in effect for over 400 years and listed all the books the Roman Catholic faithful were prohibited from reading. It was considered one of the most powerful tools of censorship in history.

These books, which included works from thinkers like Victor Hugo and Rene Descartes, landed on the list because they were all deemed morally reprehensible and went against the teachings of the Church.

Probably the most famous instance of banning and burning books was during the Nazi regime in Germany. On May 10, 1933, Nazi-dominated student groups carried out the burning of books they considered “un-German.” 

The themes of the books that were burned included social justice, critiques of Nazi Germany, and anything that went against the government and the ideology it espoused. These book burnings and bannings aimed to “purify” the country and unite it under its main ideology: an ultra-German, puritanical, government-worshiping, fascist state. In other words, Nazism. 

The common denominator when it comes to banning books is asserting power. Most efforts to ban books in human history sought to control people by limiting what they read. The written word is a powerful medium to impart new ideas, which can spark revolutions.

Free speech under fascist fire 

Italian author, philosopher, and historian Umberto Eco distilled the warning signs of fascism in his 1995 essay, Ur-Fascism. Of the 14 listed signs, we’re seeing at least one come into the national consciousness, which is “disagreement is treason.” 

The wording in KWF’s memo, specifically the reference to Section 4 of R.A. 11479, basically equates the written word to terrorism. What should be understood as commentary or critique (which are all legal, by the way) have been taken as an act of terrorism against the state. 

In this instance, the written word has become a bogeyman for the government to fight against. Following this thought process, these books can spark an uprising that incites violence and terrorism. But in all actuality, who suffers from violence these days? Is it not those who speak out and express alternative ideologies? 

Institutions like the University of the Philippines don’t ban controversial books written by Ferdinand Marcos, who was an adversary of the university during his dictatorship. Even Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” sits in one of the university library’s shelves, free to read for whoever comes looking for it. 

Instead of censoring “dangerous” or “subversive” literature, UP keeps it within arm’s reach. Why? Because removing them would directly contradict the ideology of free speech they espouse. Keeping these books around also allows students to practice critical thinking. Instead of banning books, people should be allowed to explore and judge these ideas for themselves—which is a sign of a healthy democracy. 

Banning books isn’t the beginning. In the timeframe of an ideological war, we’re already smack-dab in the middle.

Thankfully, we haven’t blacked out the fascism bingo card yet, but the warning signs are here. We are a democratic country, which means there should be checks and balances. 

Citizens have a right to freedom of expression. Sadly, today’s environment has made it difficult for those who want to speak up to do so without bearing the sometimes violent brunt of the consequences. 

We are not a fascist nation. At this point in time, we still enjoy many civil freedoms, but we also have to acknowledge that some of these, like the right to protest and a free press, are eroding

Banning books isn’t the beginning. In the timeframe of an ideological war, we’re already smack-dab in the middle.

Nolisoli.ph © 2020. Hinge Inquirer Publications, Inc.

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