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.
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.