The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0928 Wednesday, 3 April 2002
From: Richard Burt <
Date: Tuesday, 2 Apr 2002 15:22:41 -0500
Subject: Shakespeare Burned with Harry Potter
How would-be censors promote free speech.
By Jeremy Lott
In December, just as author J.K. Rowling -- the world's most famous
living single mother -- was about to be made an honest woman again, New
Mexico pastor Jack Brock announced a most generous and unlikely wedding
present. Brock, the leader of the Alamogordo Christ Community Church,
scheduled a "holy bonfire" of all his congregants' Harry Potter books
for December 30. The popular novels about a boy wizard, the 74-year-old
parson told Reuters, "are an abomination to God and to me" and are
liable to "destroy the lives of many young people." His Christmas Eve
sermon asked the tough question, "Baby Jesus or Harry Potter?"
Rowling, a member in good standing of the Church of Scotland, declined
to comment. But one suspects that the she had to suppress a chuckle when
she thought of all those kids sneaking out to buy new copies of the
Some fundamentalists cheered the Rev. Brock's efforts to burn Harry
Potter and other suspect works. More commonly, however, they and their
more moderate co-religionists winced. Certainly, the overwhelming
majority of residents in Alamogordo (population: 30,000) were mortified,
as their town was inundated with mass media scrutiny of the least
In the end, more than a dozen big press outfits, including The
Associated Press, CNN, and the BBC, showed up to cover the spectacle. As
an annoyed reader wrote to the local paper of record, the Alamogordo
Daily News, "There's nothing better than showing the entire state that
blind ignorance is alive somewhere in [our town]." In the suddenly
lively letters page of the Daily News, opinion ran heavily, if not quite
unanimously, against the book burning, with Brock and his flock
routinely compared to the Nazis and Osama bin Laden.
Upward of 800 demonstrators -- including a coalition of Unitarians,
Pagans, Democrats, Methodists, Presbyterians, and one Adolf Hitler
impersonator -- protested the wanton destruction of best-selling
literature. (Other items burned included J.R.R. Tolkein novels and the
works of Shakespeare.) As the 400 members of the Christ Community Church
put flame to paper in a private ceremony, one agitator held up a
sandwich board sign that read "'God' hates book burners," and another
claimed to have surreptitiously saved a Stephen King novel from the
Many of the demonstrators said that the book burning reminded them of
Fahrenheit 451, the Taliban's destruction of ancient Buddha statues, and
similar acts of cultural repression. The protesters could draw on a
long, sad string of historic precedents by which to denounce the event.
Even John Calvin, that great exponent of Christian liberty, famously
forced his godless opponents to burn their own books publicly in order
to escape execution.
But to characterize the book burning as a serious threat to free
expression, as several demonstrators and many outside commentators did,
is to misunderstand completely how such actions resonate in contemporary
America. The United States has certain features built into its legal
framework, including theoretically inviolable property rights and
freedoms of speech and the press, that make it very difficult for
would-be Ayatollahs to coerce the rejection of certain writings or
Granted, the Constitution also guarantees freedom of religion; but these
mechanisms force religion to bend in such a way that, in effect, the
pastors propose and the congregations dispose. Brock himself
acknowledged this, writing in a church newsletter that "if you do not
feel led to participate in tonight's [book burning], then please do not
feel condemned or excluded, just follow God's leading for your family."
Worse (from Brock's perspective, at least), civic habits have collided
with technology to create an automatic response to
any hint of censorship. When a concerned citizen takes it upon himself
to publicly burn books, it invites press coverage. Which, in turn,
invites outraged charges of "censorship" by enlightened souls
everywhere. Which, in turn, invites more press coverage -- and on and
The upshot is inevitably an outcome similar to the one in New Mexico in
December: disproportionate protest and ridicule for the burners, bigger
sales and near immortality for the targeted book. The work, whatever its
merits, automatically joins the American Library Association's coveted
list of "challenged and banned books," ensuring that it will be stocked
and read well into the next century.
Which for an author is a far more thoughtful wedding gift than a
crockpot or place setting.
Jeremy Lott is senior editor of Spintech.
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