Books

Banned Books

24 May 2016

Green Eggs and Communist Propaganda… I mean, Red Flags and Ham. No that’s still not right. Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham was banned in the People’s Republic of China in 1965 for being a “portrayal of early Marxism”. The ban on this book, an act of censorship implemented by the Maoist government, wasn’t lifted until 1991.

Green Eggs and Ham, if you’ve never read it, is a whimsical children’s book that encourages kids to try new breakfast food. At first I couldn’t possibly fathom how this could be communist propaganda. I’ve heard some ridiculous conspiracy theories in my time but the Marxist analysis of Green Eggs and Ham takes the cake. Then cuts the cake into evenly-sized pieces and distributes it equally.

Although the Chinese government never elaborated on the reasons behind the ban, popular internet conspiracy theories are here to fill the gap. The theory states that the main character Sam’s initials stand for the Socialist American Militia. But it doesn’t end there: apparently the ham in the illustrations is shaped like Russia. The mouse in the house represents all the little people converted to communism, who, in a Marxist state, will all have a roof over their heads. The goat represents the agricultural benefits enjoyed under a communist regime and the flag on the boat is red, the colour of the communist brigade. Even the breakfast itself is a metaphor for communism. Once you try it, you’re guaranteed to like it. However, the Chinese government didn’t like this portrayal of communism at all, resulting in a 26-year-long ban on Green Eggs and Ham.

Whether or not this book is actually communist propaganda, banning children’s books that can be weakly tethered to socialist theory is not only ridiculous but also a little bit scary. I do not like them Sam-I-am, I do not like this censorship and ban.

The banning of books is not all that uncommon. In the last century, thousands of books have been banned by governments around the world for reasons such as political, legal, religious or moral censorship. Bans on books don’t usually last forever and are often overturned during periods of political and ideological change. Despite this, any sort of censorship by governments is undeniably dangerous.

Books are most commonly banned under radical political regimes. In the 20th Century, the Nazi regime in Germany were heavily involved in the censorship of books. Nazi Germany banned over a hundred authors including Franz Kafka, Karl Marx and Ernest Hemingway. Actions against “un-German spirit” saw the burnings of Jewish pacifist, socialist and communist books during the Second World War.

Book censorship happens in Australia too. However, the most common reason for book bans by the Australian government was actually “offensive obscenity”. Ulysses was banned in Australia from 1927-1937. Hundreds of other titles including The Kama Sutra and Lady Chatterley’s Lover had bans lasting until the ’60s and ’70s. Unsurprisingly, sexually explicit content is a theme in many governmental book bans. In Malaysia, Fifty Shades of Grey is still banned, along with many other novels with Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi stating: “Distribution and ownership of the books listed in this schedule that could be a threat to morality are banned wholly throughout Malaysia.”

Books aren’t only banned by governments though. Schools and institutions also have the power to ban books, usually under the guise of protecting students from sexual content, but these bans can have political and religious motives too.

Green Eggs and Ham was not the only Dr. Seuss book to get banned for being subversive. The Lorax was banned by a California school district in 1989. In the not-so-subtle fable, the eponymous Lorax protests the cutting down of trees by the evil Once-ler. The Once-ler, who is driven by money and capitalism, destroys the environment to sustain industry and eventually pollutes and destroys the entire land.

But the story wasn’t banned for depressing students with its negative outlook on the destruction of the environment if industry continues to go unrestricted. The reason given by the California school district was actually that The Lorax “criminalised the foresting industry” and would encourage children to oppose logging.

Religion and moral censorship takes book bans to a whole new level. In 2010, the 10th edition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary was banned in California schools because it included the definition for “oral sex”.

Alice in Wonderland was banned in New Hampshire for sexual references and promoting drug use. Maybe Alice’s journey down the rabbit hole was an entirely different kind of ‘trip’ than the one you imagined when you were ten years old.

Can you imagine what possibly got Winnie the Pooh banned in America? No it wasn’t that one Winnie the Pooh Nazi propaganda film from 1943. Trust me, it has nothing to do with it actually. Winnie the Vocally-Subversive-Pooh was banned in 2006 because it features talking animals, which in some parts of United States, is considered an “insult to god”. Charlotte’s Web was banned in Kansas in 2006 for the same reason.

Most of the books discussed in this article, however, are no longer banned and all of them are currently available in Australia. This is partly to do with a resolution passed in 1935 by the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, opposing book censorship.

However, the banning and censorship of books is not something from the past. In July 2011 the University of Melbourne banned the writing of Abdullah Azzam, a self-proclaimed jihadist whose Islamic-themed books, Join the Caravan and Defence of the Muslim Lands encourage readers to fight “non-believers”. However, at the time, academics argued that the banning of books would result in limitations being put on researchers.

I don’t know if the ban still exists today or if the books are restricted access. However, searching through the University of Melbourne library catalogue, I was unable to find either of them.

As students we are taught first and foremost to be critical of everything we hear, watch and read. Students should have access to content, whether it’s deemed appropriate or not, and should be trusted to have the critical skills to engage with it. In fact, students and academics actually need access to this sort of subversive content for research and teaching purposes.

So what can we do to fight censorship and exercise our right to information? Well, read banned books of course! And read books in general. Stay in school, kids.

 


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