When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, ‘This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know,’ the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. No, not the rack, not fission bombs, not anything – you can’t conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him.
– Robert A. Heinlein, If This Goes On, 1940
This week marks Banned Books Week, and while there’s a part of me that kinda wishes that someone, somewhere would ban one of my books for the publicity value, the more serious part of me is deeply grateful that I don’t have to worry about this as a practical matter.
It hasn’t always been so – indeed, in the broad sweep of human history, we are living in a moment that is aberrant in its broad tolerance for dissenting voices. Personal expression is protected, honored and defended to a degree that 99% of all humans ever to have lived would find foreign – and a large proportion of that 99% would probably find it repugnant. We grow accustomed to the chains we wear, to the point of preferring them to the dangers of freedom.
Part of why I choose to write about the American Revolution is that it represents the first great eruption of the idea of freedom for all – not just a privileged few, who happened to be born with the “right” ancestors, or who cultivated influential connections, but for every farmer, every blacksmith, every prayer, every sinner… and every writer.
To be sure, the history of human freedom starts far, far before our Revolution, and has continued to make progress since it – and there are vast opportunities still to see its ongoing growth. But the men and women whose struggles I try to relate were true pioneers in this long journey, even if they didn’t have a conscious sense of it as they tried to simply live their lives.
It is because of their victories that I can write about their lives, that I have the freedom to imagine and share what their daily experiences were like, what they thought, what blasphemies they uttered. I cherish that freedom, and I’m proud to have the chance to exercise it.
Instead of urging you to read my book, today I’m going to urge you to find a banned book – one that some self-appointed arbiter of right and wrong thought you needed to be “protected” from – and do your bit to continue the journey toward universal freedom. Thank you. (There’ll be plenty of time to read my books, don’t worry… nobody’s thought of banning them… darn it all.)