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Wednesday, October 5, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Thomas Sowell

Censorship Propaganda Is Just So Much Hogwash

Creators Syndicate, Inc.

"BOOK Banning is Happening Now!!"

That is what the sign said in the midst of a big display in the bookstore window. As it turned out, book banning was not happening. Hogwash was happening.

The books in the display were not banned. You can get them at bookstores from sea to shining sea. The government itself buys some of them. Many of these books are circulating in the tens of thousands, and some in the millions.

A poster in the display proclaimed this to be "Banned Books Week." The kind of shameless propaganda that has become commonplace in false charges of "censorship" or "book banning" has apparently now been institutionalized with a week of its own.

Someone called the 1930s a "low, dishonest decade." The 1990s are a serious competitor for that title. False charges of banning or censorship are so common that they are seldom challenged for evidence or even for a definition.

To call a book "banned" because someone decided that it was unsuitable for their particular students or clientele would be to make at least 99 percent of all books "banned." Few individuals or institutions can afford to buy even 1 percent of the vast number of books that are published annually. They must exercise judgment and that judgment is necessarily in the negative most of the time.

If we are not going to call every book that is not purchased by an institution "banned," then how will we define this nebulous but emotional word?

Usually some school or library officials decide to buy a particular book and then some parents or others object that it is either unsuitable for children or unsuitable in general, for any of a number of reasons. Then the cry of "censorship" goes up, even if the book is still being sold openly all over town.

If the criterion of censorship is that the objection comes from the general public, rather than from people who run schools and libraries, then that is saying that the parents and taxpayers have no right to a say about what is done with their own children or their own money.

This is a pretty raw assertion of preemptive superiority - and while many of the self-anointed may think this way, few are bold enough to come right out and say it. Fraudulent words like "censorship" and "banned" enable them to avoid saying it.

Some of the books shown seemed pretty innocuous to me - but there is no more reason why my opinion should prevail than the opinion of someone else, especially when that someone else is a parent or taxpayer. However, other books in the display were pure propaganda for avant-garde notions that are being foisted onto vulnerable and unsuspecting children in the name of "education."

Parents have not only a right but a duty to object when their children are being used as objects for other people's ideological crusades, especially when brainwashing replaces education in the public schools. Let the ideologues argue their ideas openly with adults in the marketplace of ideas, not take cowardly advantage of children behind their parents' backs.

There is no point arguing about whether this book or that book should or should not have been taken off the shelves. There would not be an issue in the first place if different people did not have different opinions on that point. The question is why some people's opinions are called "censorship" and other people's opinions are not.

No one calls it censorship when the old McGuffey's Readers are no longer purchased by the public schools (though they are still available and are actually being used in some private schools). No one calls it censorship if the collected works of Rush Limbaugh are not put into libraries and schools in every town, hamlet and middlesex village.

It is only when the books approved by the elite intelligentsia are objected to by others that it is called censorship. Apparently we are not to talk back to our betters.

All this is just one more skirmish in the cultural wars of our time. In war, someone pointed out long ago, truth is the first casualty. Those who are spreading hysteria about book-banning and censorship know that they are in a war, but too many of those who thoughtlessly repeat their rhetoric do not.

It is not enough to see through fraudulent rhetoric in a particular case if you continue to listen gullibly to those who have used such rhetoric to muddy the waters.

There should have been a sign in that bookstore window saying "Hogwash is happening." That's what really rates two exclamation points - and perhaps a National Hogwash Week.

(Copyright, 1994, Creators Syndicate, Inc.)

Thomas Sowell's column appears Wednesday on editorial pages of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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