Tuesday, January 28th | 2 Shevat 5780

May 9, 2016 1:20 pm

The ‘Liberal’ Book-Burners

avatar by Johnny Green

 Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. His lecture at San Francisco State University was disrupted by protesters. Photo: Chatham House via Wikimedia Commons.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. His lecture at San Francisco State University was disrupted by protesters. Photo: Chatham House via Wikimedia Commons.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat was recently shouted down by protesters at San Francisco State University.

These intruders were not voicing legitimate objections or offering opposing views; instead, they were preventing the other participants from voluntarily exercising their free speech. These supposedly educated and open-minded liberals tried to use ideological coercion, reminiscent of book burning, to silence ideas that they objected to.

Similar instances include activists shutting down CIA director John Brennan at U-Penn; protesters blocking a road leading to a Donald Trump event in Arizona or occupying a Trump event venue in Chicago, leading to the event’s cancellation; students at Brown University barring a black transsexual woman from appearing at an event because it was connected to the Hillel student organization; a violent mob attacking a pro-Israel event at King’s College London; and students disrupting an Israeli NYU law professor giving a lecture at the University of Minnesota.

In 1820, Heinrich Heine made the immortal observation that “where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.” Heine’s prescient prediction was hauntingly demonstrated 100 years later by the horrors of Nazi Germany.

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Beyond its symbolic meaning, the quote suggests a real causal connection — free speech is fundamental to free society, much in the way that the suppression of ideas is a precursor to fascist oppression. Heine provided an equivalent to John Stuart Mill’s assertion that, if his argument for liberty is to be valid, “There ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.”

A modern manifestation of book-burning has become common-place in Western democratic settings and is equally worrying — and it must be identified and recognized to be challenged. By using similar methods of obstruction and exclusion, certain groups aim to achieve the same sinister purpose as their fascist precursors. In the name of “protest” and “justice,” these people seek to coerce others by denying their access to opinions and ideas.

It is first imperative to understand the effect and significance of book-burning. Despite some misconception, books were ultimately burned as a measure of oppression against the reader, not the author. Burning books is not a limitation on expression so much as it is a restriction on engagement. The purpose of burning books is to deny access to the ideas held within, to quite physically prevent the existence of debate. It is this sense of “free speech” which is most central to liberalism and democracy — the freedom to hear, rather than the freedom to speak, which is why the term “free speech” may be misleading. Burning books is about prohibiting engagement and communication by physically precluding contact with an objectionable idea, instead of challenging it by argument or reason.

We are now witnessing this widespread phenomenon in so-called liberal circles. Groups claiming to stand for liberal ideals shout down objectionable speakers; they coerce institutions to ban guests at events; and they attempt to physically prevent others’ ability to engage with an ideological adversary.

The shouting down of Mayor Nir Barkat was not a mere “statement” of rejection or opposition, nor was it individual expression. It was designed to deliberately and physically prevent other people from voluntarily engaging in discussion — just like burning a book. They turn to sabotage so as to avoid competition. They preclude access to the podium the same as they exclude knowledge from the bookshelf.

Their method is oppression by suppression. It is time they are exposed for what they are — book burners, and thanks to Heine, we know where that eventually leads.

Johnny Green is an attorney based in Jerusalem, Israel and has a degree in law and journalism from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

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