Thursday, September 26, 2013

Banned Books Week, Censorship, and the High Price of Apathy

Frederic C. Rich

W.W. Norton
$25.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5 appalled, terrified stars of five

The Publisher Says: “They said what they would do, and we did not listen. Then they did what they said they would do.”

So ends the first chapter of this brilliantly readable counterfactual novel, reminding us that America’s Christian fundamentalists have been consistently clear about their vision for a “Christian Nation” and dead serious about acquiring the political power to achieve it. When President McCain dies and Sarah Palin becomes president, the reader, along with the nation, stumbles down a terrifyingly credible path toward theocracy, realizing too late that the Christian right meant precisely what it said.

In the spirit of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, one of America’s foremost lawyers lays out in chilling detail what such a future might look like: constitutional protections dismantled; all aspects of life dominated by an authoritarian law called “The Blessing,” enforced by a reconfigured Internet known as the “Purity Web.” Those who defy this system, among them the narrator, live on the edges of society, sustained by the belief that democracy will rise to triumph over such tyrannical oppression.

My Review: It's Banned Books Week, so we are well advised to think about what the ability to ban a book really means. In Rich's novel, banning a book is no longer a concern. The apparatus of theocracy has taken over the libraries. Nothing so trivial as banning A book is necessary, slate entire areas of human knowledge for destruction. Pulp those books that don't tell the story you want told. Knowledge dies, after all. We saw that after the fall of the Roman Empire. The only libraries were in monasteries, and the only works supposed to be preserved were dogmatic, didactic christian texts. Fortunately, some subversives hid works by Lucretius, Epicurus, Juvenal, Suetonius, in their stacks. As theocracy self-destructed, as all -ocracies (including dem-) inevitably do, sharp-eyed secularists found these works and brought them out into the public gaze for the first time in as much as a millennium. (For more about this, see my review of The Swerve.)

Think about that. For a millennium, a thousand years, knowledge that might have led the world out of pervasive hunger, away from destructive hatred and war over trivia, was hidden away so it would at least survive as words on paper. It couldn't be discussed, because it couldn't be read. It was banned. Very effectively and efficiently banned. When the ban was lifted, the world's best brains went into overdrive and they've never slowed down since.

Yet we still, after this excellent example of the benefits of freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom from the fear that censorship breeds, we still have to fight the well-meaning, well-intentioned, and always wrong "moral protectors" and "nicey-nice police." It doesn't have to start big, and in fact, that is author Rich's point in this novel. His story, of a subversive in the Christian Nation, a convert to the Church of God in America from the losing side in the Seige of Manhattan, starts with the run-up to the 2008 election. In Rich's horrifying nightmare, McCain and Palin won, and then they did what they said they would do: They "restored American to a Christian Nation." They used your smartphone with its eternal connection to communication satellites to track you. It's the law that you must have it on you. It's the law that every device you use must be connected to the Purity Web (which we call universal wi-fi connectivity, and long for!) that your every utterance or interface with another person be monitorable.

Imagine how many gigaflops of information this state collects. And sifts. And uses against its citizens, but only in the kindest of spirits and in the expectation of their draconian rules and totalitarian controls bringing all souls to the Rapture as pure as is possible.

This kind of nightmare is all too possible. Look at the Taliban in Afghanistan. Look at the rhetoric coming out of the Tea Party. No, no, says the complacent and lazy citizen, who can't be bothered to vote for school board members or participate in electioneering, no way can that happen here.

“The biggest mistake that we can make is that we don’t believe that they believe what they say. And for many of them, they do mean exactly what they say," says author Rich in his interview from this past July. Look at the Texas school textbook adoption wars over presenting creationism as a scientific theory. All of those folks are the few who bother to show up, and those are usually the wingnuts from the religious right with an agenda to impose.

This novel is set in a world that didn't happen, where the battle against censorship costs lives. Those lives are lost because, in that world like this one we live in, so very many of us can't be bothered, don't want to, are too tired or bored or stressed or lazy to, stand up and say NO MORE when censorship is proposed or imposed. And Rich, a high-powered financial industry lawyer, works with the kind of people whose money-making and self-interest are tightly bound up with the trends in thought and speech around the world. In short, if he doesn't know from the inside whereof he speaks when he speaks about the consequences voicelessness, of stifled freedom to speak and think as one desires, no one alive does.

Start where you are. Do what you can, what you're capable of doing. Fight the small battles and, win or lose, the war's course will change. Maybe you'll even live long enough to be glad that you did. I only hope you won't live long enough to regret that you didn't.

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  1. Christian Nation was an interesting book of ideas, and one that did great job of following through on the implications of its premise, but I found it flawed in a number of areas.

    It bothered me that so much of the story depended upon coincidences, well-timed accidents, and government sanctioned murder. I also had an issue with the the almost single-minded focus on the evils of male homosexuality. It's Islamic terrorists hanging around airports with rocket launchers that initially polarize the nation, but they're quickly forgotten about in the need to stop gay men from kissing in public. Don't get me wrong, I get what Rich was doing in making the core struggle an internal one for the America people (The Blessing was probably the creepiest damn thing I've ever read about), but it felt like a significant plot thread was just forgotten about.

    As a cautionary tale and a philosophical exploration of what happens when the lines between church and state are erased, it was a fascinating read. It was a bit too dry to really be entertaining, but it was interesting to see how easily we can be convinced to give our freedoms away.

    1. I agree with all of the above, most particularly the dry part. But, and this is crucial, the right-wingnut hysteria machine cranked up over gay marriage and it worked a treat on so many fronts. The annoying part for the wingnuts is they didn't get to stop the brainwashing of the post-1980 generation, so the people in power for the next ~30 years simply don't care about the issue. This book, though, is based exactly on what the idiots bray about publicly.