Solway: Why burning a book is not a good idea

I note that many of the responses to my recent article “The Fire This Time” take me to task for considering Terry Jones’ burning of the Koran as reprehensible. I seem to have been largely misconstrued and the point I was trying to make is lost. I understand the intention behind Jones and especially the gutsy Ann Barnhardt, but I could never burn a book, not even Mein Kampf. Both my conscience and my heritage forbid it. Moreover, book-burning in these instances reeks too much of a stunt.

More importantly, for all the bravado it exhibits (Jones) or the mettle it takes (Barnhardt), it is in the long run not an effective measure, and sets a precedent whose consequences cannot be foreseen and which may come back to haunt us. When one burns a book, one condones the burning of the library of Alexandria. There are other and far more effective ways of fighting evil, whether with the pen or the sword, with scholarship or with militant courage. Or both.

I understand that Jones and Bernhardt have put themselves at risk, as did Molly Norris not so long ago. It is precisely this which is commendable, for it separates them from the pusillanimous community of journalists, public intellectuals and elected leaders cowering in fear, ignorance and political correctness. But book burning is not an isolated act. It occurs not only in a given time and place but in a vast symbolic dimension in which the burning of a book carries implications of censorship, bigotry and totalitarian repression of speech and thought. If one burns the Koran or Mein Kampf or The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, one also validates the “bonfire of the vanities.” This is why book burning as such is “reprehensible.” It is indelibly associated with a tradition of cultural closure and anti-intellectuality and is a standard technique of dictatorial regimes—whether a book is physically incinerated, banned or prevented from bring published.

“A good book is the precious life-blood of the master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond,” wrote John Milton in the Areopagitica. An evil book, by contrast, is the infected blood of a diabolical spirit that contaminates the body politic. But good books have often been regarded as evil books and cast upon the flames. Clearly, we have a double problem on our hands. When one burns a book, one justifies a paradigm. And when one burns a book, one also burns the concept of the book, the “life-blood” of a literate and reflective civilization. The book itself should be hors de combat. Similarly, there are evil ideas abroad in the world, but—assuming it were possible—one does not oppose an evil idea by eliminating ideas altogether, except, of course, for the ideas of the eliminator.

Whatever pluck or fortitude one needs to conduct an auto-da-fé as an individual act of protest is better invested in hitting back in other ways—electing the right people, writing and reading articles and books, participating in information campaigns, supporting our troops, getting involved.

In short, the way to fight an evil book is with a good book. Ideas must be met with ideas in the same way that an armed enemy intent on aggression must be met with force of arms, pre-emptively if necessary. This was the point I was trying to make in my article when I argued that what was really going up in flames was not a book but the house of Western civilization. We focus on what may be a publicity stunt or even a particular act of bravery, but remain oblivious to a disaster in the making. Torching the Koran is only a distraction, a sideshow, creating controversy that ultimately exhausts itself in useless wrangling while at the same time giving the wrong historical example.

Perhaps the word “reprehension” that I used was too strong, written in the heat of the moment. And certainly, what is even more rebarbative is the reaction of many of our media mavens and bien pensants who, as Diana West writes, “like dhimmified, mentally besieged peoples rush to protect Islam,” leaving our freedoms “unguarded and devalued.” But however we decide to enter the lists, books should not be burned, banned or strangled in the crib.