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Friday, July 31, 2009

Free speech, please

To their left, flames and burning books were cheered like heroes.
-"The Book Thief"

One of my hot-button issues came into the news recently when a group of Wisconsinites called for the removal of 82 books from their public library and the public burning of one.

The four plaintiffs -- who describe themselves as "elderly" in their complaint --- claim their "mental and emotional well-being was damaged by [the] book at the library."

Book banning is one issue I've never understood. Most of the time the argument is that children need to be protected from sensitive issues but my problem with that reasoning is this: isn't a parent's job to protect their children? If you don't want your kid to read Harry Potter, don't let him. It's as simple as that. And what's wrong with exposing your child to new and different ideas? He might actually -- gasp -- learn something.

In 2008, the American Library Association (ALA) received more than 500 reports on efforts to remove literature from library shelves and school curriculum.

Burning books just takes it a frightening step forward. What could be so potentially dangerous in a book that its removal isn't enough, that it must be physically destroyed by lighter fluid and a match?

One memory I have of going to the library as a child -- and this might still be true, although I haven't noticed it in recent years -- is of a list of the most banned or challenged books prominently displayed near the check-out desk.

The flier wasn't there to deter you from checking out those books. Instead, it encouraged you to read those titles and take a stand against censorship. In that same vein, the ALA sponsors an annual Banned Books Week during the last week of September, celebrating the "freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular," stressing "the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them."

I recently finished Marcus Zusak's compelling novel "The Book Thief," a World War Two story about a young girl learning to read and embrace language. One of the main points Zusak makes is that words have an incredible power. Hitler manipulated people first by using words, then force, and how in the end, words have the ability to save lives.

One of the most compelling things about this book is how words and crude, black-and-white drawings are interspersed, truly giving credence to the expression "A picture tells a thousand words."

As an American, I feel lucky to live in a country where (for the most part) free speech is valued and encouraged. I was surprised when, after watching this Sarah Silverman video mocking McCain and Bush, one Korean friend said that if a comedian did a similar routine in Korea, she would be put into jail.

Then again, this is a country that imprisoned a blogger who wrote critical remarks about the government, only releasing him after overwhelming public support led to his acquittal.

The Korean government has also officially banned 23 books from being distributed to members of the armed forces, deeming them "seditious publications."