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On Banning Books and Hunting Witches

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Who would have thought, mere weeks ago, that Americans would need to be concerned with book banning and witch hunting in this day and age? By his precipitous choice of a running mate, Senator John McCain has inadvertently riled some murky Alaskan back-waters. And this is a good thing, because neither book banning nor witch hunting should go unnoticed or unexposed.

Jack London is perhaps the best known author of tales set in the land of the Northern Lights. What American child hasn't grown up with the tales of White Fang and The Call of the Wild? Yet this same Jack London was among the authors condemned by the Nazis in 1933. His 1908 novel, The Iron Heel, was publicly burned along with writings by Theodore Dreiser, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, HG Wells, Sigmund Freud and Ernest Hemingway, among others.

In 1644 the poet John Milton commented on similar book burnings in England. "Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image, but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye." At the same time, the urge to ban, censor and prohibit was being carried, along with smallpox and typhus, to the New World. The first recorded book burning in Massachusetts took place in 1650. The Puritan authorities condemned and confiscated a religious pamphlet by William Pynchon. The book, though not the man, was burned by the public executioner in the Boston commons. A few years later some women in nearby Salem were less fortunate.

Which brings us to Pastor Muthee, the guest pastor from Kenya who had prayed over Sarah Palin when she was running for Governor of Alaska. According to theChristian Science Monitor, "Muthee began his life in ministry in Africa by hunting down a local woman named Mama Jane after proclaiming her a witch. Six months of fervent prayer and research identified the source of the witchcraft as a local woman called Mama Jane, who ran a "divination" centre called the Emmanuel Clinic in Kiambu, Kenya. Her alleged involvement in fortune-telling and the fact that she lived near the site of a number of fatal car accidents led Pastor Muthee to publicly declare her a witch responsible for the town's ills, and order her to offer up her soul for salvation or leave Kiambu. After Pastor Muthee declared Mama Jane a witch, the townspeople became suspicious and began to turn on her, demanding that she be stoned. Public outrage eventually led the police to raid her home, where they fired gunshots, killing a pet python which they believed to be a demon."

This may sound comical to some, but smug smiles may fade when this incident is put into context. In August, 1999, Paul Harris wrote the following report, which appeared in Britain's Sunday Telegraph under the headline "Hundreds Burnt to Death in Tanzanian Witch-Hunt".

"Lynch mobs have killed hundreds of Tanzanians whom they accuse of witchcraft as black magic hysteria sweeps East Africa. Most of the usually elderly victims have been beaten or burnt to death by gangs of youths. Some old women have been singled out simply because they have red eyes -- regarded as a sign of sorcery by their assailants. The condition is actually caused by years of toiling in smoky kitchens cooking family meals. ... Police say 357 suspected witches have been killed in the past 18 months, but the Ministry of Home Affairs believes that the true figure is much higher. A departmental survey said as many as 5,000 people were lynched between 1994 and 1998."

Lest we forget, historians assert that hundreds of thousands of women, perhaps more than a million, were burned as witches over a three hundred year holocaust that mercifully ended in Europe and North America in the waning years of the 17th Century. Most of those victims had accusers, prosecutors and judges who were operating within a judicial framework. Their tormentors felt themselves perfectly justified. They fervently believed they were combating Satan and doing God's work on earth. Joan of Arc, today revered as a Saint in the Catholic Church, was burned at the stake as a heretic and a witch in 1429. In his day the condemning Bishop Cauchon was as celebrated a witch hunter as Bishop Muthee is in Sarah Palin's congregation today. (Elsewhere at the Huffington Post is a video showing Pastor Muthee standing over Sarah Palin rebuking every form of witchcraft).

The omnipresent champions of moral rectitude often referred to a particular book they would never think of consigning to the flames. Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) was published by the authorities of the Inquisition in 1485. It is a misogynist's handbook. "All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman...Women are by nature instruments of Satan...They are by nature carnal, a structural defect rooted in the original creation."

If Malleus Maleficarum was the book Sarah Palin had in mind at a Wasilla City Council meeting in the fall of 1996, (coincidentally contemporaneous with the Tanzanian witch hunts) when she publicly asked librarian Mary Ellen Emmons what her reaction would be if she requested her to ban books from the Wassila library -- there might be some sympathy as well as irony. But alas, the tough minded librarian who refused to comply with the request from the councilwoman or later on to be bullied when Sarah Palin became mayor has recently barricaded herself behind a wall of silence, refusing to talk with anyone.

We know the list of books banned by the Nazis. We know the books burned by Robespierre in the French Revolution and the interminable list of titles proscribed by the Inquisition's Index. We even know the title of Salman Rushdie's book, for which he received a death fatwa by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Nothing upsets tyrants more, petty or omnipotent, than an unpleasant book. What were the titles of the books which so disturbed councilwoman and later mayor Palin? Was she acting on her own or at someone else's prodding?

Encouragingly, Sarah Palin's attempts to remove books from the Wasilla library were resisted not only by the intrepid Ms. Emmons but also by an awakened local citizenry who pressured the new mayor to quickly reverse her decision to fire the intransigent librarian. It is however, a chilling observation that none of the many people who must have known the titles of the books in question has stepped forward to tell us. What are they afraid of?

But do the titles really matter? What matters is the revelation of fears and prejudices as old as time. What matters is the attempt to keep certain thoughts away from others, to control what others may see and read with their own eyes, with their own intellect. It's a kind of mind control as old as papyrus manuscripts, scribbled parchments and Gutenberg's printing press. It's had many practitioners who each and every one thought themselves ordained by a higher power, whether the polytheistic gods of antiquity or the monotheistic God of today's great faiths. Their attempts to shield or save others in each and every case exposes and condemns others. And the sentence is always a kind of death -- of the mind, of liberty or the actual physical death of authors and readers both.

Perhaps we should be more concerned with the imploding economy or questions of war and peace. Perhaps the banning of books or the hunting of witches are just side issues, wacky anachronisms meant to distract us from what's really important. And after all, in fairness, following the tempest in Wasilla's teapot no book was actually banned by the then-Mayor Palin. It's an annoyance to have to deal with what we consider to be settled issues. The cancer is in remission we tell ourselves. It's really not a problem. So better to just ignore it. Let's not make a mountain out of a mole hill.

As we know all too well from mankind's long and sorry history, the defense of liberty cannot afford a day off. Any attack on the freedoms enshrined in our 1st Amendment, however trivial, must be confronted with the same seriousness the founding fathers brought to bear in its creation. When government seeks to abridge those liberties -- local, state or federal government, the citizens of America, like the good citizens of Wasilla in 1996, need to stand up and be counted.

We owe a debt of gratitude to John McCain for bringing these troublesome issues, however involuntarily, out into the revealing light of day. Nonetheless, it is lamentable that the electorate has been placed in the position of having to ask such elementary questions of a candidate for the 2nd highest office in the land and at such a late date. But ask them we must. Does Sarah Palin know the horrifying history of the persecution and execution of women as witches? Did Sarah Palin know about Thomas Muthee's career as a modern day witch hunter when he was called upon to intercede with God to give her the Governorship of Alaska? And if in light of recent public revelations she knows of this only now, what today is her position on witch hunting?

Will someone, anyone ask the Governor what titles she sought to ban from the Wasilla public library? Does Sarah Palin know of the sacrifice of countless authors, playwrights and filmmakers in the defense of the freedom of expression? Does she know that Solzhenitsyn was in the Gulag or that Valladares was in Castro's prisons just for writing books? Does she begin to grasp the impropriety of any government official to even inquire about the banning of books?

At the one and only Vice-Presidential debate, will candidate Palin be asked to explain her understanding of the 1st Amendment or the separation of Church and State? Are these subjects somehow off-limits for this candidate?

Book banning? Witch hunting? As we've been hearing lately on the campaign trail, "Thanks, but no thanks." If what John McCain was looking for in a running mate was a strong willed, rock-solid frontier woman with small town values not afraid to speak truth to power and steadfast in the defense of the Constitution, why didn't he select Mary Ellen Emmons?

"Local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books ..." -- U.S. Supreme Court in Board of Education, Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982).