Ban That Movie!!

Book Burning

Book Burning (Photo credit: Jason Verwey)

A podcast piqued my curiosity while I was at the gym this morning. It was the latest in a unique on-going NPR series entitled “Stuff You Should Know”.  I was a little put off by the format when I first tuned in to it because it was two relatively young guys, Josh and Chuck, just casually discussing topics. But there was much more to it than met the ear. While the co-hosts freely admit that there is no claim to be comprehensive or encyclopedic about topics, a listener quickly learns that these guys work hard at researching their material separately and the ensuing discussions give the listener the pleasure of eavesdropping on an intelligent and informed conversation.

The topics vary widely, but the one this morning on “book banning” made me think of the Islamic world’s anger over the crude anti-Islam “movie” for which Muslim mobs blame America. How can it be that these people don’t know that America believes in freedom of speech, that freedom of expression, even if it is offensive, is enshrined as a fundamental principle of our constitution? After all, this is the age of the Internet, is it not? The Internet, that freeway of information open almost worldwide, was even said to be instrumental in the Arab Spring uprisings. Alas, mere access to information does not equate to learning truth.Even in America efforts to control information, according to Josh and Chuck, are ubiquitous.  Here for example is their list of “nine surprisingly banned books” with brief reasons given by the banners in parens:

Farenheit 451 (profanity)
Where’s Waldo (a topless lady on the beach)
The American Heritage Dictionary (out of Wasilla, AK, certain slang usage for words like “bed” and “knockers”)
Grimm’s Fairy Tales (blood, violence)
The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank (“a real downer”)
The Harry Potter series (“questionable content”)
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (“protagonist of questionable character”)
Steal This Book, by Abbie Hoffman (the title could prompt shoplifting)
Forever, by Judy Blume (premarital sex)

But, back to the furious mobs. It turns out, according to a BBC News item, that about ” . . . 30% of the approximately 300 million people in the Arab World were illiterate”. That would be 90 million people, so it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that many in the crowds rushing our embassies and consulates might fit that category. Would it be surprising to find enterprising fundamentalists eager to help them construct some protest signs?  In English yet?

Jordan and Kuwait, not surprisingly, are listed among the better Arab educational systems while Djibouti, Yemen, Morocco and that shining example of nation-building, Iraq, were ranked lowest in terms of access, efficiency and quality of education. But what about the quality? That’s a big question mark when the mere ability to read the Q’ran can define one as literate.

We Americans live in something of a cultural bubble because actual censorship is alive and well in the Arab world. An article by the Doha Centre For Media Freedom, based in Qatar, says this about journalism there:

“Self-censorship is part of being a journalist in the Middle East,” argues Jo Glanville, editor of the Index on Censorship. “While there are individual journalists who are outspoken and will be courageous and push boundaries, for the majority of journalists, they can only operate by censoring themselves.”

For the authorities, it is a low-cost, yet all-encompassing form of control. “It’s a tactic,” explains Glanville. “The regime will punish someone quite severely to use them as an example to frighten other journalists. Your average journalist is going to be terrorised by seeing what happens to those who stick their necks out.”

And even if they avoid jail, there is the ever-present threat of dismissal for journalists employed by state-owned media. Things aren’t much better in the private sector.

“Even the independent newspapers will be owned by politicians or someone who wants to curry favour with the government,” says Glanville.

Americans grow up being taught about freedom of speech and the free press, so we tend to take it for granted I think. But it should give us pause to consider the educational obstacles presented by nation building, as in Afghanistan for instance. Trying to turn them, or any other third-world country for that matter, into a democracy is, I submit, like trying to build a house by starting on the second floor before the foundation. And if in addition to the educational obstacle one adds religious opposition to the effort, then we have a Sisyphean task.  “Allies” shooting us in the back for god’s sake.

Riot control coespu (fire)

Josh and Chuck can amuse their audience with tales of banned books but in the Arab World censorship and manipulation of the truth is no joking matter. Little wonder that Hillary Clinton’s speeches aren’t slowing them down, eh?   George Orwell’s 1984, I submit, is still a possible future for the world.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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14 Responses to Ban That Movie!!

  1. Here I was looking for Waldo in those books…had I know that there was topless ladies in it, I would have looked harder.


  2. We, as Americans, also have to be careful about what news we do (and most importantly, don’t) get through our outlets. I’m amazed at the number of stories I see on the BBC or CBC that NONE of the American outlets carry. Throw in the political bias of various American news groups (and I don’t just mean Fox News), and suddenly “freedom of speech and information” takes on a disturbing tone.


  3. Jeff Little says:

    Probably the most respected news organization in terms of reporting the truth no matter who it offends is Al Jazeera. This is not necessarily a contradiction to the statement that censorship is alive and well in the arab world. It could be the best because it is reacting to the rest. I am just saying that you have to be aware of both sides.

    The Arab world has its problems and we do to. In general, I will applaud balanced editorials that highlight the “need to change” while still conveying respect for the society with the issues and without the assumption that we are automatically better.


    • I will definitely second Al-Jazzera. We first got their broadcasts some years ago, and they were rather biased, strongly pro-Arab. They went through a large shakeup right around the early days of the “Arab Spring” (don’t know if it was co-incidental), and since then have been very good for limiting “spin”.
      A site I’ve advocated before seems strange – They are great for breaking news, but they do have a strong bias in anything to do with Argentina and Great Britain. Other than that, they’re pretty fair.
      And though I am biased towards THEM, I have to advocate the Chicago Tribune, both hardcopy and online. I think they’re pretty good, but I am a Windy City boy, so….. 😀


      • Jim Wheeler says:

        I too have a general impression that Al-Jazzera attempts unbiased journalism, but I’m skeptical all the same. One also has to consider the confirmation bias of the audience over there as well – two people can hear the same broadcast item and take away different opinions. 🙂


  4. Jim, excellent!
    I often listen to NPR but I’m not familiar with that program. I like your analogy of the house building. I guess it’s hard for people in some of the more repressive countries to understand that a movie “made in America” does not mean a movie approved for release by our government. Should the producer of that movie, a California Coptic Christian I believe, be charged with “hate speech”? Hold on … I will look up Josh and Chuck. Ah! How Stuff Works! Yes, I remember that. Didn’t know they had a radio program.
    As always, I learn from you.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Yes, I’ve found NPR to be such an excellent information source that it’s making me feel a little stereotyped – have I turned into a geeky liberal? In all honesty I find the programming unbiased and very high quality. I’ve lately been recording Story of the Day, Planet Money and Stuff You Should Know as well as Car Talk, a long time very popular humor show that is ending soon. These pod casts make my daily gym visits whisk by at warp speed.

      Thanks for dropping in, Helen.


      • My favorites are Diane Rehm, and Science Friday and This American Life. But, just one fair and balanced comment 🙂 I have a friend who will no longer listen to NPR because they have become too conservative, too right wing. She keeps her radio on our local Pacifica and Free Speech Radio. ( I listen to those as well, sometimes. I learn news from Amy Goodman that i don’t find anywhere else.)


  5. ansonburlingame says:

    I believe you are all missing a critical point herein.

    Absolutely free speech is necessary if FREEDOM or LIBERTY is to remain a bastion of American ideals. But with free speech come absolute responsibility for both the speaker, at least to a degree, and for sure the listener. One that is listening to free speech must be able to distinguish between variour free speakers, some of whom flat out lie, and most of whom in the political areana spin the hell out of what they say.

    And then there are those in “civilian life” (people that are not policiticans) that have every right to speak and write freely. But when they do so, well look at the results.

    I wonder if free speech demands at least in part a degree of respect as well, for views that counter one’s own. No I am not talking about a “crazy video” in terms of “respecting the video” but I AM talking about the right, absolute right to publish the video. Why for example was that “speaker” later arrested? No it was not on the surface because of his video, but……?

    Real freedom of speech, to be effective in a society, demands careful listening and more important THINKING about what has been said or shown. Then a response is appropriate if you thoughts are different and you in turn should show respect and at least an attempt at understanding of the differing views, counter to your own.

    The best example I have seen of where such is NOT practiced is when censorship or banning prevails!!! A writer has every right to IGNORE free speech, however despicable, but does he have the right to force others to ignore it?????

    As well there is another aspect to such speech, private speech. When something is said “privately” say in an email, is it approrpriate to make such comments public? Yes, in my view if it is a matter of law, but how about in political exchanges between two private individuals??



  6. henrygmorgan says:

    Jim: This topic reminds me of one of the most impassioned defenses of free speech and publication that I’ve ever read, John Milton’s “Areoptigitca”, written in 1644, but alluding to Mt. Areopagus in Greece, a famed venue for speech making, where in the 5th Century a famed Greek orator named Isocrates delivered what is thought to be the first defense of freedom of speech and publication. Milton’s work is also remarkable for being written in the midst of the English Civil War, where the sides were as far apart perhaps as they are today. My point in referring to this work is that the battle for freedom is old indeed, and we must always be alert to attacks on it. Bud Morgan.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Your point is well taken, Bud. The freedom to share information will always be in dynamic tension with the quality of that information, so conflict in inevitable. Logically, then, the greatest threat to freedom of speech is its restriction, and the greatest kind of restriction is secrecy. Makes me think of:

      1. Romney’s tax returns.
      2. The Patriot Act.
      3. Military classification of everything in sight.
      4. What goes on inside Mormon temples. ?
      5. Fraternity initiations.
      6. Milton 😀


  7. Alan Scott says:

    How about including the hate speech laws in Canada ?


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