Mad About Science: Banned books, part I

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Banned Books week is my favorite library holiday. Proclaiming such a thing always elicits a unique response from everyone around me. Usually shock and confusion — why would I like to ban books? I work at a library!

Celebrating banned books is about being rebellious, fighting the power and sticking it to the man — not about banning books. Every September, libraries around the U.S. shine a light on books that have been challenged or banned for their perceived offenses, which are generally for laughable reasons.

Battling censorship is a core function of the library, because blocking everyone from something you don’t like opens a door for people to block everything they personally don’t like. This is more than a frustrating inconvenience, this is the main step that autocracies have taken throughout history to cement tyrannical power and oppress the population. 

Blocking ideas blocks dissent and puts a muzzle on the democratic process, robbing everyone of freedom: the freedom to think, to feel and, eventually, the freedom to live at all.

Often, the act of censorship has the opposite effect of its intention. Someone trying to block an idea by censoring it puts a spotlight on the very thing they’re trying to hide. There are two terms for this: “The Cobra Effect,” coined by the international intelligence community, and the “Streisand Effect,” born of the internet. 

“The Cobra Effect” anecdotally originated during the British rule of India. The British government wanted to reduce the population of venomous cobras in India, and offered a bounty for every cobra head that was delivered to them. Rather than killing all of the cobras, the Indian people started breeding them and cutting off their heads to make more money, thus making the problem much worse.

“The Streisand Effect” originated in 2003, when a photo of Barbara Streisand’s mansion was taken as part of a series of aerial photographs meant to showcase coastal erosion of the California shore. Barbara Streisand filed a $50 million lawsuit against the photographer to have the image removed from public record. Ultimately, the judge dismissed the case, forced Streisand to pay the photographer’s legal fees and accidentally triggered the internet to descend upon the image in a fervor, downloading it in excess of 420,000 times.

Both of these ideas are examples of “perverse incentive” — a situation in which the outcome either runs contrary to, or makes the problem it’s trying to solve, much worse. This is the driving force behind Banned Books Week.

Over the next two weeks we’ll share historical examples of how extremists of various political stripes have used censorship and book banning to their own advantage, as well as the resultant disastrous outcomes.

This week, we’re going to look at book banning by a government that was considered to be to the extreme left.

The Soviet Union began purging books in 1923, a full decade before the subject of next week’s article. The driving force behind Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin purging books throughout the USSR was essentially identical to every other tyrannical force in history: to suppress ideas at their conception. The official language was much more flowery.

Huge swaths of books were deemed “harmful” to the Soviet Union and its people. These books were grouped into subjects and labeled as “opposition to the worker’s class struggle and harmful to the working class, religious propaganda, pro-tsarist [pro-aristocratic] ideas and books that incited national hatred or questioned national pride.” 

Among these were virtually all religious texts, as well as the works of Plato, Rene Descartes and Leo Tolstoy — you know, the most prolific Russian writer of all time.

More than 720,000 books were removed from Moscow in a single year alone. These book purges lasted for more than two decades, though strictly enforced censorship remained until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The sheer quantity of books banned and collected by government officials in the Soviet Union was so high that it created a logistical problem, as they began running out of places to store the banned materials.

Before anyone jumps on the Reader with angry mail about how tyrannical the left is, I feel it’s worth pointing something out about the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union under Stalin was extremely divorced from the actual practices that it preached. Stalin’s Soviet Union was a proletariat dictatorship, a far cry from the idea of a communal group working together for the benefit of the group. The practices employed by Stalin throughout his reign were that of an emperor — one who murdered at least 25 million of his own people because they were in his way. 

This had nothing to do with his politics, real or perceived, and was entirely about cementing power and stealing from others — an ambition made reality by suppressing knowledge and inciting fear. It all began with banning books that were a threat to his power.

Stalin died alone in a pool of his own urine sometime between Feb. 28 and March 5, 1953.

If you’re curious to see more of the books Stalin was afraid of, stop by the library and check out our display.

Next week, we’re taking a trip to the right side of the political spectrum to find out what scared German dictator Adolf Hitler.

Spoiler alert: It was books and the people who read them.

Stay curious, 7B.

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