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History of Censorship

The new midi is... Fake Plastic Trees, by Radiohead!

Censorship is not a new issue. It has been around for centuries. Nor is it solely confined to literature. Censorship exists in Politics, Music, Art and many other areas. It is useful to consider how censorship was dealt with in the ancient world

It was taken for granted in the Greek communities of antiquity, as well as in Rome, that citizens would be formed in accordance with the character and needs of the regime. This did not preclude the emergence of strong-minded men and women, as may be seen in the stories of Homer, of Plutarch, of Tacitus, and of the Greek playwrights. Greece was notorious for its openminded approach to literature and lifestyle in general (orgies were common and beloved by both the rich and poor!). While Greece was liberal, Athens, its capital city, was even more free minded. There may be seen in the plays of an Aristophanes the kind of uninhibited discussions of politics that the Athenians were evidently accustomed to, discussions that could (in the license accorded to comedy) be couched in licentious terms not permitted in everyday discourse.

Of course, even the progressive Greeks had their limits. In the trial, conviction, and execution of Socrates in 399 BC, we see the evidence of censorship. Socrates was executed on charges that he corrupted the youth and that he did not acknowledge the gods that the city did but other new divinities of his own. This is a clear example of the damage banning books can cause. Socrates’ works were banned from the public’s eye and Philosophy was set back about one hundred years.

But this was not done behind closed doors. In Plato’s Republic, there is a clear account of a system of censorship, particularly of the arts. Not only was the worship of different Gods forbade, but certain political issues were not to be discussed under any circumstances. These Greeks, they meant business.

When England was slowly converting to a more liberal regime, many things were proposed and rejected. The most important of these, and, some may say, the most controversial of these, was the English-ed bible, translated by John Wycliffe, a good friend of the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt. The English Bible was nonetheless banned by Edward II in the late 14th century. This was another example of censorship.

In the 16th century, when England converted to Protestantism (so Henry VIII could marry whomever he wanted) the English Bible was brought back in. However, there were still texts banned: during the conversion, the possession of anything related to the Vatican or the Pope was illegal. In fact, when Henry VIII wanted to get rid of his second wife, Anne Boleyn, he accused her of having been in possession of a censored book during the reformation, 4 years ago! These censoring rules were serious!

Censorship of literary works continues today. The most recent controversy is one concerning literary craze Harry Potter. The Potter books, which are written for the young adult/teen market, deal with sorcery and magic. The hero is a wizard who knows spells and fights dragons and such. Some fundamentalist Christian groups are trying to ban the Potter books, saying that they encourage witchcraft. (Interestingly, these same people who are so adamant about their own religious beliefs seem to disregard the fact that Wicca is a legitimate religion. They seem to be caught in the somewhat 18th century belief that Witchcraft is evil and satanic, regardless of the emphasis on karma, justice and kindness that rebounds in the religion.)

No one has yet been successful in banning the Potter books, but there are still active efforts all over the place. None of these people have cared to ask Christians who actually read and enjoy the books what they think. As our good friend Becky, whose father is a Lutheran Minister, says, "They’re fiction! Anyone who takes them literally has some problems!"

In the long and colourful history of censorship, many of what we today call classics have been the subjects of burnings or bannings. The Nazis were notorious for their book burnings, provoking Heinrich Heine to pronouce famously, "Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings." And he was right. How a man could predict the terrifying ovens of Auchwitz in 1933 is unknown, but this quote shows one thing: censorship is not so much about the books as it is about control. The Nazis may have thought that they were only burning books, but it went further than that: they were burning freedom of thought.

Sadly, censorship in today’s literary world is all too common. Some works that have been banned or have come very close to being banned are: Lady Chatterly’s Lover, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Satanic Verses, Of Mice and Men, Anne Frank’s Diary, Huck Finn, The Grapes of Wrath, the Harry Potter series, An Ideal Husband, The Canterbury Tales, Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar and all of Shakespeare’s, Marlowe’s, Wilde’s and even Blake’s verse.

We hope this history has made you think about what we’ve verged on in the past and made you pause and wonder about whether we will change in the future.

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