EMINA MELONIC: Canada's bans on children's classics reveals the authoritarianism behind woke censorship

Ronald Reagan famously said the most terrifying sentence in the English language was "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." Maybe that's why, anytime I hear the word "ministry" -- that is, when it refers to a government department rather than a religious congregation -- my hackles raise, both as a person and as an artist. So, when I read that the Ontario Ministry of Education has issued a “decree,” I knew it was going to be yet another example of soulless bureaucracy invading creativity and freedom. And indeed it was.

As reported in the Post Millennial, the Ontario Ministry of Education has decided that “all books available to students are [to be] inclusive” and in line with the notion of "equity." The Peel District School Board took this to their dark, bureaucratic heart, and decided to remove books such as The Diary of Anne Frank, the Harry Potter series, and -- quelle horreur -- Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It’s probably useless to ask why Carle’s classic and beloved children’s book would be one of the choices. Perhaps the caterpillar’s eating habits, which lead him to become rather big, encourage fat-shaming.

After the various complaints as well as criticism from Ontario Education Minister, the Peel District School Board reversed the decision, but refused to accept any culpability. After all, they were just following orders as laid out by the Ontario Ministry of Education. And to be fair, given how vague the guidelines were, maybe the librarians shouldn't be blamed. They were instructed to sift through all of the books published prior to 2008, and determine if there was anything offensive or unpleasant in them, based on an ideology that is deliberately constructed to find everything offensive.

So what is ultimately to blame? Is it ideology, bureaucracy, or just plain stupidity? Honestly, it's most likely all of the above. The original "decree" is, after all, a classic example of what happens when ideologues become bureaucrats: namely, the cynical use of ideological principles (which may or may not have once been sincerely held) as an excuse for the will-to-power of small control freaks. Which doesn't mean these kinds of puny impositions aren't dangerous: at their worst, these kinds of small offenses against free thought and free expression threaten to bureaucratize the human soul. which is why, books are often the most obvious targets of totalitarian control.  Both Nazis and Communists, after all, burned books. 

While the "decree" by Canada's ministry couches this totalitarian impulse in therapy-speak about "harm" and "unpleasantness," the result is the same. For a government department to make official determinations about what thoughts and words are “harmful” or “unpleasant” is to strip away people from their inherent rights as thinking beings. Descartes’ statement “I think, therefore I am” may not be a correct foundation for the meaning of personhood, but in this case, it applies. To think for oneself, to make a choice, to have free will, is at the core of being human.

These so-called proper protocols also cut off a possibility of joy. As Hannah Arendt remarked in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, “ideologies are never interested in the miracle of being. They are historical, concerned with becoming and perishing, with the rise and fall of cultures, even if they try to explain history by some ‘law of nature’.”

Arendt’s observation certainly applies to and explains the Ontario Ministry of Education’s decision to weed through the books that are older than 2008. Such a decision is rooted in history, but not in the way that honors our past. Rather, at the center of it is a denial of collective memory. For example, deciding to remove The Diary of Anne Frank from the library shelves denies the collective memory of the Jewish people. Not to mention, one wonders what possible rationale even the most zealous bureaucrat could find for excising such a powerful firsthand warning against the dangers of dehumanization from library shelves. But perhaps the acknowledgment that there is a past where ideas very like theirs wiped out books -- and lives -- like Anne Frank's is simply too much for people whose fragile psyches depend on always imagining themselves as heroic, regardless of the facts.

Because of that discomfort with the messiness and moral unpredictability of history, as opposed to the quick, dopamine-fueled simplicity offered by social media, we now face a world of endless, oppressive presentism, which the critic and writer Camille Paglia defined this way: “Presentism is a major affliction–an over-absorption in the present or near-past, which produces a distortion of perspective and a sky-is-falling Chicken Little hysteria.” What better description of the cramped, panicked mental world of the average woke Twitter user?

Because of presentism, and that cramped panic, we now face a distressing disease of which acts like this ludicrous "decree" are only a symptom: the inability or outright refusal to confront the prospect of moral disagreement. From the Left, this takes the form of using "being triggered" by words as an excuse not to engage with the reproach offered by those words. The Right, on the other hand, is not blameless in its continuous offering of dismissals like "facts don't care about your feelings," which may be less hysterical, but are still prima facie dismissals. Both approaches are just excuses for continued mediocrity, and refusal to ponder ideas that one may disagree with.

But refusing to acknowledge ideas does not make them go away. Shutting one's eyes to evil, or using selectively enforced decrees to remove perceived forms of it from the public's view, only makes evil less visible, but not less present. Which is why while bureaucracies and ideologies will always exist, and always seek to suck the joy out of life itself, they will always fail because the independent human spirit yearns to learn, to experience, and yes, sometimes even to experience discomfort, because discomfort is feeling, and only the dead do not feel.

Image: Title: hungry caterpiller