Notable Quotes: On Censorship and Persecution

You'll never know what this button said, and the world is sadder for that.It occurs to me that I haven’t done a Notable Quotes entry in a long while, despite the fact that my first attempt at the category has proven to be one of the most visited posts of my blog (thanks in no small part, I’m sure, to a three-month window where the accompanying image made the Google Images front page whenever someone searched for ‘books’).

I like to collect quotes, both from famous personages and from my own acquaintances. For this entry I’ve decided to highlight a few well-formed words on censorship and persecution. Powerful things have been said about these issues, and I enjoy a turn of phrase that forces me to think about what I’ve just read or heard. As the Notable Quotes category is still an underdeveloped one I’m going to tinker with the format a little and put in an explanatory sentence or two about why I appreciate each one. A couple will be repeated from my earlier entries. Forgive me.

“They came first for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

Pastor Martin Niemöller

Niemöller wrote this about the apathy of German intellectuals towards the rise of National Socialism. It’s not an exact quote because he said a number of different versions of it after his release from a death camp at the end of the Second World War. Still, the idea of standing idly by while something terrible happens just because it hasn’t happened to you yet is one that humbles me. I get a chill knowing I would have acted exactly as he acted, and I would have suffered for it just as he did. I wonder if I would have had the strength after my ordeal to admit I was wrong? I doubt it, but I appreciate the fact that I’m not likely to ever have that part of my character so tested.

“Censorship reflects society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.”

–Potter Stewart

It’s an interesting thought to examine the motivations of the censor. Freedom of speech and expression is the mark of an open society, so what does it say about a people who would put limits on what can and cannot be said? Is the problem with the outrageous statement, or the culture that cannot accept its presence in the first place?

“Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.”

–Heinrich Heine

It’s true: Censorship and persecution go hand in glove. Silencing an idea is eventually viewed as an inefficient half-measure when the permanent solution is to destroy the voice spawning the ideas in the first place.

“One of the signs of Napoleon’s greatness is the fact that he once had a publisher shot.”

–Siegfried Unseld

I find flippant comments like this one strangely attractive, even while they set my teeth on edge. It’s pithy and amusing on its face, but the sinister statement should be looked at from a couple of different angles. Is this quote trying to make Napoleon appear admirable, or a monster, or an admirable monster? Whatever your answer is, it says something about who you are.

“Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice.”

–Henry Louis Gates

This is my entire problem with the earlier quote about Napoleon. There is nothing admirable about silencing a human being. As Voltaire said, “A witty saying proves nothing.”

“Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea.”

–John Updike

I must confess I haven’t read much Updike yet. One short story of his that I came across purely by chance that has always stood out in my mind involved a young couple getting to second base in a parked car, and the young man then has to deal with the shameful aftermath of getting overexcited in the heat of the moment. Part of me wonders how such a story was ever published in the 1950s, and another part of me is horrified that I would have rejected this out of hand if it was ever submitted to me back when I ran student publications. It is a story that has stayed with me easily ten years now –and that should mean something– but the whole thing was just a little too filthy for me to ever have agreed to publish, were it up to me. I appreciate Updike’s take on literary criticism: It really is far too often the refuge of those who would play it safe while criticizing those who take chances in an effort to make an impact. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t write impactful stories sit in judgment of those who can.

“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.”

H. G. Wells

First of all, I should say that while I admire Wells’ writing a great deal, almost everything I have read about the man’s politics and personality lead me to regard him as a terrible human being. That said, I know exactly what he is saying here: I have taken my not-always metaphorical red pen to a lot of other people’s work in my time, and there is a sense of power, of total control, of wild abandon that creeps up on you. It is so very easy to lose perspective and overstep your boundaries when you are given someone else’s work to make ‘acceptable.’

“Vietnam was the first war fought without any censorship. Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind.”

Gen. William Westmoreland

The important thing to take away from this one is who said it and why. Westmoreland commanded the American forces in Vietnam during the height of that conflict, including the Tet Offensive. The media was allowed to go anywhere it wanted, and people at home saw a war that was unwinnable. The conflict ended because the public demanded it stop. In the end, Westmoreland blames the American defeat on the fact that the American people knew too much about what was happening. How is that a bad thing? Now look what happened in Iraq: ‘Embedded’ journalists were carefully shepherded and spoonfed what they could cover. The military controlled the message, and they had free rein to do anything they wanted until after Mission Accomplished didn’t end anything and Abu Ghraib told the whole world that we had no idea what was really going on over there. What would Vietnam and Iraq have looked like if the media only ever regurgitated sanctioned press releases?

“You should read history and look at ostracism, persecution, martyrdom, and that kind of thing. They always happen to the best men, you know.”

–George Eliot

Killing the message too often involves killing the messenger, either metaphorically or literally. There has never been a time when we have been totally free of that fact.

“My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular.”

–Adlai Stevenson

I don’t know much about the man, but I appreciate the sentiment. If you can say your piece without fear, the list of things to fear in this world become a lot shorter.

“Freedom is not worth having if it does not connote freedom to err.”

–Mahatma Gandhi

Okay, I’ll say it: Gandhi was no saint. That said, he was never afraid to lead by example or practice what he preached. People should have the option to be wrong from time to time, and those who would deny them that status are grievously flawed themselves.

“Patterning your life around other’s opinions is nothing more than slavery.”

–Lawana Blackwell

I don’t have a comment for this one, save to say it’s true.

“Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.”

Salman Rushdie

This one really strikes me every time I read it. I have no patience for the riots that break out whenever someone draws a picture of Mohammed, but I have read the Satanic Verses and I was offended on behalf of Muslims. That book couldn’t be more inflammatory. Rushdie has been marked for death since 1989, and it is something approaching a miracle that he hasn’t already become a martyr for the cause of the freedom to say whatever you want. I couldn’t have written his book. I wouldn’t have published it if it was up to me. I don’t have that courage or that conviction. I can admire it in others, though. Rushdie isn’t indulging in idle chitchat: He has literally put his life on the line in support of this ideal.

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”

— Eleanor Roosevelt

Oh, Eleanor. Always the optimist. Still, there’s truth to the notion of having the strength of your own convictions, and dealing with the slings and arrows when they come knowing that this time they fall because of something you believe in.

– – –

I could go on, but I did say in my last post that I was going to take a stab at shorter posts more often. This one is already 1700+ words. What I want to leave you with is the thought: We all believe in censorship. Censorship is where personal opinion mix with righteous indignation and then intersect with the larger world. No one is totally free of their own beliefs and preferences, nor the desire to inflict those ideals upon others. Hopefully we can all do our best to keep that impulse in perspective: Even if there’s a gang that agrees with you, that doesn’t make you right. The majority may rule, but they do not have the monopoly on justice. People should be able to say their piece, especially when their intention is not to harm but to communicate.

Anyway, something worth thinking on. Cheers.

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