A 1-Step Guide to Fascism: Censorship

Updated: Jan 28

Book Bannings are back in fashion.

By Radheesh Ameresekere | Canada



Totalitarian history is a history of censorship. The censorship of ideas. Of art. Of culture.

Throughout the 1930s, the Nazis – in particular the German Students Union – ceremonially burned books that they deemed an opposition to Nazi ideology. What started with the burning of Jewish and Marxist literature became an extensive cultural genocide that saw the very physical destruction of immense bodies of scientific, cultural, and philosophical work. European Fascists quickly followed suit. The history of censorship – in particular, biblioclasm of the Nazi variety – has subtly and not so subtly seeped into aspects of contemporary life. The 60s saw mass totalitarian book burnings in Brazil. In the 1980s, nearly 100,000 rare Tamil books and rare documents were burned by the Sinhalese police during the Civil War, and shortly thereafter in South Africa, Apartheid literature was thrown into waterways. However, this practice is not from a generation past. In 2016 (yes, 2016), the Turkish government burned some 300,000 books after a failed coup d’etat. The Chinese Communist Party is still burning books that Party elites find objectionable.

Book burnings (or banning, or censorship, if you prefer) tend to send a shiver down my spine, perhaps more than anything else. While the horrors of the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Stalinist and Maoist genocides, the shared bloodlust of Ami, Pot, and Pinochet, the Taliban’s religious crusade, and countless other historical bloodbaths are often unthinkable, as a philosopher, I am primarily concerned with how totalitarian regimes are able to convince regular citizens that these lunacies are somehow a righteous national project. It seems clear as day to me that the fundamental mechanism is the control of ideas. Literature in particular is romantic in nature – it is filled with revolutionaries, free thinkers, dissenters, and heretics. From fictional dissenters Winston Smith to V, to history’s dissenters Socrates, Jesus, Voltaire, Locke, Paine, Kant (who was recently reprimanded for his ‘critical assessment of reason’), Marx, Nietzsche, de Beauvoir, and Arendt, literature inherently challenges the status quo. Moreover, it teaches you how to challenge the status quo. So when you burn, ban, or censor it – whether by disposing of the books themselves or their readers – you essentially starve and thereby silence the inquisitive mind. This is a travesty for even a single mind, but when you starve and silence an entire national consciousness, you effectively produce a nationwide body of easily malleable, easily brainwashed, Big-Brother-loving robots.

While it seems Republicans – American’s foremost defenders of free speech and ardent critics of cancel culture – seem to find ‘purification by fire’ a little draconic, they have no issue banning books. In late-2021, local Republicans endeavoured to remove LGBTQ+ literature from Virginia school libraries. A Kansas school district then followed suit, banning – among others – Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Just this month, a Tennessee school board removed Maus from elementary curriculums, a Holocaust graphic novel, on the grounds of (cartoon mouse) nudity and profanity. I give only a handful of examples for the sake of brevity. However, it seems that this mass effort to censor literature that examines the brutal reality of history, and the struggles of marginalized grounds – in particular LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities – stands on the backdrop of the recent GOP assault on Critical Race Theory (hereafter CRT). CRT essentially endeavours to examine the intersection of race and law in the United States, arguing that racial discrimination is built into the American politico-legal system as opposed to an individual vice, thereby challenging the mainstream liberal approach to American history as the tale of “Life, Liberty, and Happiness” for all. Republicans have launched an onslaught of attacks – at virtually every level of education – on CRT. The Trump Campaign, backed by various Conversative Think Tanks, was the spark that lit the powder keg, but the ban of CRT literature and lectureship. Thereafter, conservative lawmakers and activists have used ‘CRT’ as "a catchall phrase for nearly any examination of systemic racism” if only to widen the censorship of non-Republican views.

I stand on the shoulders of a tradition that often spits in the face of authority, looks beyond comfortable illusions, and is brave enough to question reality at the most fundamental levels. I strongly believe that human reason can never truly be starved or silenced – in large part because of reason’s own curiosity – and there will always be people who see tyranny and fascism for what it is. Revolutionaries will always revolt, fighters will always fight, and thinkers will think, teachers will always teach – or so I hope. But history teaches a far less enthusiastic lesson. When institutes, governments, and nations collectively silence perspectives that clash with the ideologies and beliefs that fuel their hatred and power-lust – perspectives that are critical and often uncomfortable – they win the battle. It is just that simple. The minute even the first page of a single book is burned, fascism becomes the default. So the fight against totalitarianism is a fight for freedom of conscience, thought, and speech. It is a fight for the right to question, critique, and dissent. It is a fight – at its core – to commandeer your own mind.

In my regular Kantian fashion, I will leave you with some of Kant’s thoughts from his essay, Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment? “Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this immaturity when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! Dare to be wise!'- that is the motto of enlightenment.” In all things, never fail to be the commander of your own reason, and no matter how much knowledge is burned, banned, or censored, always dare to be wise.


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