Book burning and the end of reason

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SOUTH AFRICA - Cape Town - 11 April 2019 - The book launch of Gangster State, Unravelling Ace Magashules web of capture takes place in Greenpoint. The author, Pieter-Louis Myburgh was interviewed by Media24s Editor, Adriaan Basson. Picture: Courtney Africa/African News Agency(ANA)

The reaction of the ANC leadership was swift and sharp – it will not tolerate book burning or violent disruptions of book launches by its cadres – it is the antithesis of what the ANC fought for. The supporters of ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule who thought they could silence his critics were put in their place even by the SG himself who said “not in my name,” and characterized their actions as political intolerance and against freedom of expression.

Those supporters of Magashule may have been called to order, but the very fact that the ANC Youth League in the Free State had created posters advertising a bonfire to be held on April 15th, where they would set alight copies of Pieter-Louis Mybergh’s newly launched book Gangster State is deeply troubling.

The book burning was allegedly supported by the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) and the South African Students Congress (SASCO), which both had their logos displayed on the poster. And it was members of the ANC Youth League and SASCO who had allegedly gone on the rampage at Exclusive Books in Sandton destroying copies of Mybergh’s book last week.

Had the book burning gone ahead, there is no question that the event would have captured headlines around the world along the lines of “Fascism rears its ugly head in South Africa,” or “ANC Youth League holds Mass Book Burning.” The pundits who like to say that South Africa is heading down a dangerous slippery slope would have claimed vindication, and our moral authority would have once again taken a beating.

It is time for serious introspection, and to ask ourselves how we got to this point. What has all of a sudden made some of us so intolerant to the airing of ideas, alternative view points, or criticism?

The very idea that books could be burnt in the year 2019 suggests that there is a dangerous undertone simmering beneath the fabric of our society that seeks to silence critics and political opponents. Those who are part of  this undertone are directly threatening the right of intellectuals in our society to air their views and disseminate information. The fact that this element exists and is seeking oxygen is a direct threat to our democracy.

While we can in no way compare strains in current day South Africa to what happened in Nazi Germany, it is useful to examine where things started to fall apart in Germany in the early years before World War II. It was Adolf Hitler’s Chief Propagandist Joseph Goebbels who said in 1933 that book burning “is a strong, great and symbolic deed,” that shows the intellectual foundation is sinking to the ground, but “from this wreckage the phoenix of a new spirit will triumphantly rise.” The books being burnt at the time were written by Jewish intellectuals, including works by Einstein, Freud, Mann and other leading intellectuals and scientists.  The youth burning these books were members of the German Student Union.

In 1933 the German Student Union had announced a literary purge of books ‘containing dirt and being more akin to puke than reading matter.’ Soon thousands of books were being hauled out across the country and burned in bonfires while crowds were shouting obscenities. The largest of the 34 book-burning rallies held in Berlin was attended by an estimated 40,000 people. It is not that the burning of a few highly controversial books in South Africa would lead to mass book burnings of tens of thousands of people. But it is important to understand why the sentiments behind the act of book burning are so problematic.

If one thinks too much is being made about the proposed book burning this week in the Free State, then look at the verbatim statement issued about it: The ANCYL in the Free State Province would like to notify and invite society to a session where Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s puke disguised as a book about the Secretary General of the ANC, Cde Ace Magashule will be burned. We have arrived at this sober decision driven by our deepest sense of a need to maintain a clean environment free of garbage such as this one produced by this strat-com product.

It is our role as the media to sound the alarm when confronted with such developments in order to guard against history repeating itself. In 1933 Hellen Keller, the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor’s degree, had written a letter to the Nazi students before they burnt her book. In the letter she said to them, “History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them.”

Instead of the German students simply disagreeing with Keller’s collection of essays How I Became a Socialist, they added her book to a list of ‘degenerate’ books to be burned on May 10, 1933, the date chosen for a series of public burnings of books that differed from the ruling party’s perspective on political, social, and cultural matters.

Before and after the book burnings in Germany, some American editorial responses had made light of the events, calling them ‘silly’ and ‘infantile,’ but others had foreseen much worse to come. What is also a matter of historical record is that if one looks at the act of book burnings in history, these acts have often been committed in parallel with executions of scholars and those considered enemies of the state.

One of the most important fiction books I have read was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury came up with the title as he believed that Fahrenheit 451 was the temperature at which paper auto-ignited. The book is about a futuristic American society where books are outlawed and firemen burn any books they find. The lesson of the 1953 novel which also became a movie, is that the burning of books symbolises censorship, the loss of freedom and the suppression of ideas.

Book burning is not a phenomena only relegated to ancient history or World War II. When Mao Zedong took power in China in the 1960s and implemented the Cultural Revolution, any book that didn’t conform to party propaganda was destroyed. In 1981 the right wing Sinhalese Buddhists burnt down the Jaffna Public Library in Sri Lanka, burning 100,000 books of Tamil history and literature which they saw as a threat to their Buddhist beliefs. When ISIS invaded Mali in 2012, they also targeted books and ancient manuscripts to be burnt. Just this month a group of Catholic priests sparked outrage after burning Twilight and Harry Potter books because they considered them sacrilegious.

The reality is that the successful public burning of one book that people disagree with creates the momentum for the burning of other books that go against the grain of what people want to hear or believe. Once a society tolerates this type of behaviour it morphs into a monster of its own.

As long ago as 1644, John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost wrote in his book Areopagitica, “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.” Whether some of the youth in our country considered Gangster State a good book or not, it is a medieval impulse to set out to destroy ideas and arguments that one disagrees with. It is in this way that the phenomenon of book burning signals the end of reason.


Shannon Ebrahim is the foreign editor for the Independent Media Group.