By: Robert Fernandez
In late March, MIT Press published a slim volume written and illustrated by Bini Adamczak called Communism for Kids. Inevitable howls of outrage followed from conservative news outlets, blogs, Twitter, and a flurry of one-star reviews on Amazon from people who haven’t and will never actually read the book. Thanks to the free publicity, there is a whole new audience for a book that was destined to only be purchased by political science professors for the children of annoyed relatives.
Long after we won the Cold War, “communism” is still a fighting word for many in the United States, and materials for children and young adults are the source of most challenges to books and intellectual freedom, so this combination was a combustible one. So far, according to WorldCat, the book can only be found in 82 libraries, and all of them appear to be college and university libraries. (Amusingly, these include Regent University, founded by evangelical preacher Pat Robertson, who considered communism “the ultimate evil, the enemy of God.”) The children of the outraged are far more likely to frequent one of the 685 libraries (a number which includes many large multi-branch public library systems) which contain a children’s book written by former Fox News host and alleged sexual predator Bill O’Reilly.
Of course, whatever we think about these objections, people are free to object to the content of the book, or the book itself. Intellectual freedom also means the freedom to voice these kinds of objections. Where they go too far is in instances like the one in a tweet calling for the book to be “burned and banned,” which garnered hundreds of likes and retweets.
— Betty Ann (@baalter) April 12, 2017
One should be sufficient, but both will really drive the point home, one supposes.
When confronted with these vociferous objections, it is worth considering why communism was rejected by most of the world and why America triumphed. It is not a matter of our side being divinely chosen, nor should we uncritically cheer for it like a sports team. It is because we represent cherished ideals like intellectual freedom and are a place where you can publish, or object to, a book like Communism for Kids and not be imprisoned or executed.
Throughout the charnelhouse of the 20th century, because of these ideals we were a beacon of freedom for the world. Countless people fleeing communism, or fascism, or totalitarian regimes, came here to enjoy those freedoms, including my own father. Countless more watched from afar and coveted our freedom and demanded it in their own countries.
To be sure, we didn’t always live up to those ideals and often acted shamefully, persecuting those who dared to dissent in the years of McCarthyism and stubbornly refusing to extend these freedoms to women and African Americans and others until the end of that century. Things did not always work out for those who came here. One example of many was German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who fled Nazi Germany for America, then fled McCarthyism for communist East Germany.
But many more who flirted with communism did not like what they saw, abandoning it in the face of its restrictions on intellectual and personal freedom, not to mention Stalin’s purges and gulags. Whatever America’s flaws, on the whole the arrow of progress here pointed toward freedom.
That’s the America we should embrace, not the America that abandons its own ideals because it fears a children’s book.
Robert Fernandez is an academic librarian and is a member of the Florida Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. A member of the Board of Directors of Wikimedia District of Columbia, he has been active on Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects since 2004 and is part of efforts to get more librarians to participate on Wikipedia. Find him on Twitter @wikigamaliel.