Friday, January 11, 2019

BOOK BANNING AND THE AUTHORITARIAN TEMPTATION


By Lily Hikam *)
they don’t gotta burn the books, they just remove ‘em.” (Rage Against the Machine)

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A long time ago, back when I was a high school student, I read a book titled Fahrenheit 451 by an American author Ray Bradbury. The book was set in a dystopian future and told the story of Guy Montag, a fireman, who was tasked with burning books by the government in an effort to eradicate and control the dissemination of knowledge and censoring literature.

During the course of the story, Montag became disillusioned with his task, causing him to quit his job as a fireman and, in turn, he dedicated himself to work to preserve and save the books he was once tasked with burning. As a side note, the “451 degree Fahrenheit” referred to the temperature at which book papers catch fire and burn.

If you paid attention to any modern history class (or just google ‘book burning’ after reading this post), you’d know that book burning and book raids have been widely employed by different regimes as a means of controlling information dissemination, controlling knowledge, as a propaganda tool, and also as an extreme mean of censorship. This practice dated long back to the age of antiquities with the destruction of the Library of Alexandria by Julius Caesar, the Nazi book burnings in the 1930s as well as Stalin’s Great Purge, just to name a few historic examples. Judging from these examples, and the authoritarian figures attached to these historical events, it stood to reason that for citizens of a democratic country, we equated book burnings and book raids with repression of freedom of speech: A violation of one of our basic and most sacred of human rights.

Unfortunately, the practice of book banning has happened again recently in Indonesia after two decades of the democratic reform movement (Reformasi). The recent raids of PKI-themed books by the military in Padang (West Sumatera) and Kediri (East Java) were shocking to say the least. To make matters worse, the books that were raided were academic books, historical textbooks that did not in any way endorse the party. Rather they were books written to get to the root of the still enigmatic event that occurred fifty three years ago. They were intended to educate the public, to disseminate knowledge, and to enlighten the future generation.

It’s tempting to blame everything on the fact that the people who reported the books didn’t know the nature of the books, rather they saw the title, was alarmed and, due to the banned status of PKI in Indonesia, immediately reported the books to the authorities. Some would say it can be relegated as a faux pas from the military’s side. Alas the damage has been done. Why? Because those premises overlooked the fact that book seizures are illegal under the Indonesian Constitutions. Further, these raids were conducted without any legal proceeding which made them illegal. Thus from a legal standpoint, these book raids were already unlawful.

In addition, the unanimous condemnation from scholars and citizens alike added gravity to the illegality of these raids (https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2019/01/10/raids-over-pki-books-condemned.html?) . Further, the optics did not help either. The fact that the military were the ones who conducted these raids lend a sense of urgency and gravitas to the whole situation due to the shared history between these two sides. If you know and remember your history, you would rightly be alarmed at what just occurred here. Let me be clear: This is not in any way an endorsement or an apologist's writing of the PKI, rather it is a strong and unapologetic endorsement for the protection of freedom of speech and our guaranteed right to the access and dissemination of knowledge under the Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia.

The historical precedents we have did not spell happy endings, but a harbinger of things to come. As an Indonesian millennial, I never thought I would see such a day where something I only ever read about in history books, and described in a fictional story about a dystopian future, actually occurred in my own country. Yet such was the reality. Finally, I’d like to quote one of my favorite bands, Rage Against The Machine, who once stated that “they don’t gotta burn the books, they just remove ‘em”, to refer to the practice of book raids to control what types knowledge and information was being passed on to the citizenry. It is in our best interest to stay vigilant to the slightest signs of abnormalities in our democratic bodies. Otherwise our democratic society will never see the chance of flourishing in the future.

*) PhD candidate
 Cardiogenomics Clinical and Research Program
Department of Biological Chemistry
School of Medicine
The University of California, Irvine, California, USA.
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