A couple of weeks ago, my colleague and fellow-blogger, Sarah, wrote about how the North Dakota State University at Fargo froze a government research grant that would have developed a pilot project to provide sex-education to at-risk young women ages 14 to 19. (see https://writesomewhatnot.com/2013/01/29/that-old-story ) The reason for the freeze was that the partner in this research was Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood in North Dakota provides no abortion services, but is only an educational organizational. However, the name Planned Parenthood is enough to enflame some ultra-conservatives. The unspoken message is that providing knowledge for young women will empower them in ways that ultra-conservatives find threatening.
I have been reading Salman Rushdie’s book Joseph Anton, his memoir about his years in hiding after the Ayatollahs of Iran had issued the fatwa (death contract) because they considered Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses blasphemous. Rushdie went into hiding, spending 9 years protected by the British Secret Service, and using the pseudonym Joseph Anton, the first names of two of Rushdie’s favorite authors. Over the years, the bounty offered by Iran increased. The contract stipulated that the amount would be greater if someone killed Rushdie outside of Iran. The ultra-conservatives Muslims in Britain were, often, the most vocal in calling for Rushdie’s death. Young Muslims men firebombed bookstores. Crowds demonstrated calling for the death of a blasphemer. People burned copies of the book. Of course, many of the people involved in these activities had not read the book, but took on faith what their authoritarian leaders told them.
The connection between these incidents, it seems to me, is fear of freedom of thought, fear of freedom expression and fear of education. Blind obedience to authoritarian leaders is only possible if people are not educated, and are not able to access multiple kinds of information. Blind obedience to authority is only possible if the fear of what those leaders can do is greater than the human drive for knowledge.
Rushdie had difficulty getting anything else published while he was in hiding, including a book of children’s story that he had written for his son. Many publishers shied away from being associated with him, worried about the possible repercussions because the zealots had burned business and had killed a few people who were associated with Rushdie. Although Rushdie was not killed, the Ayatollahs won, at least for a time, because they instilled fear in a great many people, not just Rushdie, but publishers, editors, readers, friends and family members.
Many years ago, I taught children’s literature at the small college where I still teach. During one class period, I raised the question of how we guide our children’s reading. One student (a mid-thirties mother) said, “It’s easy. You just burn the books you don’t want them to read.” I was speechless. It turned out that this woman had done just that. When her teen-aged daughter had returned from babysitting job with a book her employer had lent her. The mother deemed the book unfit for her daughter to read and had burned it. The woman gave no thought to the fact that the book was not hers to burn, but that it belonged to someone else. She did not discuss whatever concerns she had about with her daughter, or with the book’s owner. She did not even offer to buy a new copy of the book for the original owner. She felt completely justified in burning a book she herself had not even read. Although impact of this act is certainly smaller than Iran’s, it still rippled out to the people who lent the book to the teen-ager, to the teen-ager herself and to any of us who might lend books to teen-agers.
No one burned anything in North Dakota , but the suppression of the research has much the same effect, and is perhaps more insidious. A book burning is public. It is a visible sign of repression, but in North Dakota, the researchers will know why they cannot conduct their research, but most other people will not, and a group of high-risk teenaged girls will lose a chance for education that might change their lives. While these young women will not be physically burned, their lives may well be poorer economically, intellectually and emotionally than they might have been because they are being denied education.
We like to believe that the United States is an enlightened, free country that values education, freedom of expression, freedom of thought and freedom of speech. But every year, the forces of censorship and fear gain power. Parents call for librarians to remove books from library shelves. Parents pull students out of school because they are afraid of the truths that science teaches. Students come to class with the idea that just because they believe something is true, that their belief is as accurate and valid as documented science. Our actions need to demonstrate that we will stand up for the values of education and the free exchange of ideas. Our institutions of higher learning must not be intimidated by ultra-right wing zealots who fear education, who fear free thought and who fear educated women. They must not be intimidated by those who would repress the free exchange of ideas. Democracy is a farce if those who would shut down free thought and education have the power to do what they wish.