Note: This essay is based on my presentation at the “Reading Rights: Defending the Right to Read against Book Banning and Censorship” Webinar organized by the Academics Unite for Democracy and Human Rights on December 6, 2021. I thank Bomen Guillermo for his kind invitation and support.
Here are just a few of the reasons why I love books:
- I love their thingliness. I don’t recall ever wanting to smell or caress the TV or computer, but I love doing so with books. I love the heft, texture, color, and scent of books, their typography and design, their portability.
- Books are mini-shuttles that transport readers across space and time, guiding them toward inner and outer worlds, toward real and imagined ones.
- I love the anticipation of reading as much as the joy of reading. I always look forward to opening a book for the first time. I’m an avid collector of first and last sentences.
- I love collecting books, or used to love collecting books. I am a recovering BookSale addict.
- Books are easier on the eyes and less likely to drive their readers to distraction, compared to the screen.
- Books are good sleeping pills for adults and pacifiers for kids.
Since you are taking part in this Webinar, I think I’m already preaching to the converted, so let me focus on a few other points with wider social, cultural, and political resonance and implications.
People read books for pleasure, for the stories that books tell, for the music of their language(s) and the multiple meanings, even contradictory ones, they suggest. People also read for instruction, for the information that books present.
More than that, to open a book is to open a gate of interpretation. Books lay out arguments that readers can grapple with. There’s something to be said about the fact that, to quote George Orwell in 1984, “The best books…are those that tell you what you know already.”
But it is also true that we learn new things from books. Books have the power to unsettle and disturb, to challenge truisms and cherished assumptions, even to provoke and offend. They may lead readers to question themselves as well as the societies and world they live in. Above all, they sharpen one’s thinking.
The usual knee-jerk reaction of the offended, particularly those in positions of authority who find themselves under challenge, is to argue for banning the books.
Indeed, the list of books that have been banned or challenged at one time or another somewhere in the world is quite extensive. They include not just the usual suspects like Copernicus, Galileo, Voltaire, Marx, and Darwin, but also Chaucer, Einstein, The Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine, Alice in Wonderland, Madame Bovary, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, A Farewell to Arms, The Pentagon Papers documenting the US involvement in Vietnam, Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962, Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Perburuan (The Fugitive), the Qur’an, and the Bible.
The most famous banned books in the Philippines are Jose Rizal’s Noli me tangere and El filibusterismo. Let’s look at the passages in these novels in which the word “terror” or its equivalents appear.
There’s the Guardia Civil, which has “only this purpose: the repression of crime by means of terror and force” (tiene no más que este fin: represión del crimen por el terror y la fuerza). There’s Sisa, full of terror (llena de terror), driven mad by the injustice inflicted on her sons. There’s Juli, overcome with terror (rendida por el terror) at the thought of the terrible fate that awaits her at the convent. There’s Matanglawin, formerly known as Cabesang Tales, who is called the Terror of Luzon (el Terror de Luzon) and the reign of terror (régimen de terror) endured by ordinary people who, caught between the tulisanes and the government, opt to join him.
There’s Simoun, who inspires terror in Basilio and others before and after Basilio learns of his plan to organize a revolution. Simoun displays antique jewelry linked to the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. Padre Irene hastens Capitan Tiago’s death by feeding the sick old man’s terror with hair-raising stories (aumentar su terror con historias espeluznantes). At the Quiapo fair, Simoun makes Padre Salvi faint with terror (rendido por el terror) when Simoun, disguised as the Sphinx, accuses Salvi of having driven Maria Clara mad with terror and suffering (volverla loca de terror y de sufrimiento).
In the chapter titled “Tatakut,” certain persons are said to have advised the Captain-General “to inspire terror [inspirar el terror] and administer a lasting lesson to the filibusteros”. His Excellency refuses to release Basilio despite the latter’s innocence, on the grounds that “the punishment will prove more salutary and exemplary, since it inspires greater terror [como que infunde más terror].”
In other words, it isn’t only Simoun and Matanglawin who have the ability to inspire terror. Readers understand fully well that they were driven to do what they did by the injustice and persecution inflicted on them and their loved ones.
The novels also emphasize the fact that it is the government officials, the clergy, the police and military, and the state itself that regularly terrorize individuals and communities. Rizal pointed out that the abuses committed by authorities are responsible for fomenting filibusterismo. Rizal himself would be tried, condemned, and executed as the Word Incarnate of filibusterismo (el Verbo del filibusterismo), or what states would now call a terrorist. Both La Liga Filipina and the Katipunan, with their clandestine operations, would have been categorized in our time as terrorist organizations.
And if you look at the commentary on Rizal’s novels over the past hundred or so years, the most persistent refrain you hear is the one that laments the fact that modern-day, Filipino counterparts of the abusados are alive and well and still terrorizing the Filipino people.
Now let me turn to the topic of book prohibition in more recent memory. Under martial law, exposés or what Filipinos at the time called bomba like Primitivo Mijares’ The Conjugal Dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos I and Carmen Navarro Pedrosa’s The Untold Story of Imelda Marcos were banned.
According to my friends who were students and teachers at the University of the Philippines (UP) at Diliman, UP library books that had keywords or titles like “revolution” and “Marx” were removed from the open stacks and circulation. Even the Campus Crusade for Christ’s book Revolution Now! was removed from the reading room. These books were not withdrawn from the library collection. Instead, they were “archived”, which is another way of saying that these books were kept under lock and key. It is true that in principle the books could be perused. The problem was that one had to submit an official request to gain access to the books. In this way, the military was able to keep tabs on who personally requested the books.
At the same time, however, the UP librarians created a parallel secret archive for the materials–speeches, manifestos, newspaper clippings, literature, pamphlets and leaflets–critical of the Marcos regime, materials that would form the core of the UP Radical Papers collection, away from the prying eyes of the military.
After the People’s Power Revolution, the materials from both archives became available for use by students, teachers, and scholars.
Access to libraries and their materials is crucial to critical thinking and research, as any student or scholar can tell you. For the past year or so, I’ve been working on a glossary of the Marcos era, and I have found that books and other library materials still provide the best access to fully vetted, systematically organized and presented data and debates that can be backed by verifiable sources.
Looking back, I think that the “archiving” of so-called “subversive” books and materials did not prevent activists from becoming activists and resisting the Marcos dictatorship. Activists found ways to link up with each other through networks of solidarities among likeminded people and, just as crucially, people who didn’t necessarily agree with each other politically or ideologically.
Ideas circulated in clandestine and other forms. More people were learning about the abuses of the dictatorship by alternative means, including the mosquito press and aboveground as well as underground advocacy inside and outside the Philippines. More important, they were experiencing for themselves firsthand the effects of political repression and the increasingly dire economic condition in the country, which was greatly exacerbated by nepotism and crony capitalism.
And yet, as much as the withholding of books and other reading materials did not prevent people from experiencing for themselves the disastrous consequences of constitutional authoritarianism, it did at the same time have the general effect of restricting access to information and filtering knowledge about the regime. Restriction and filtering have had lingering effects even into the present.
The educational system produced textbooks for elementary and high school students that touted the accomplishments of the Marcos era but did not give full and accurate information, let alone encourage teachers and students to think more critically, about the regime’s failings and their negative consequences.
Mainstream press reporting was censored at the time. Even decades later, with a few important exceptions, it is often unsystematic and lacking in nuance and context. In the age of social media, people prefer their echo chambers over informed analysis. Fewer still bother to read books, especially academic ones, or do their own research.
Demographic change is clearly a factor behind selective historical memory, as nearly sixty-five percent of our total population is aged 34 and below and a little less than eighteen percent of those now aged between 35 and 49 years were born only after martial law was declared, meaning that more than eighty-two percent of the current Filipino population had either not been born yet or were still children when the Marcos dictatorship was toppled.
Those old enough to have lived through the martial law years have tended to view the period selectively through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, though this attitude in part springs from disillusionment with the failure of People Power democratization to deliver on its promise of peace, order, prosperity, and decisive action to improve the lives of fellow Filipinos.
Which brings me to the current situation and its implications for Philippine society. We all know that a solid, grounded education makes for an empowered, conscientious citizenry. The essential ingredients of a good education are good students, good teachers, good libraries and laboratories, and supportive administrations.
Withdrawing or banning books from libraries erodes the core principles of freedom and democracy affirmed by no less than our Constitution. There is something very wrong when documents signed by the government itself, such as the Hague Joint Declaration of 1992 and the“Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines” of 1998, are among the materials withdrawn from libraries. Should military and school authorities then also withdraw from bookshelves the Constitution on which these documents affirming the inviolability of human rights are based?
Academic freedom is based on the freedom of thought and expression. But educators have no right to use administrative fiat to infringe on students’, teachers’, and researchers’ constitutionally guaranteed rights as citizens to inquire and think for themselves and engage in free and open discussion. More substantially, the job of educational institutions is to nurture students’ ability to make their own judgments about the books they read, whether educators agree with the ideas contained in these books or not, and especially when they don’t.
Freedom of thought and expression includes the freedom to speak truth to power, to criticize people in positions of authority, and demand change for the better. People don’t only have the right to criticize their leaders and other authorities when these people are not doing their jobs; they also have the right to defend themselves against tyranny, oppression, and injustice. Let us not forget that the 1987 Constitution was itself founded on the right of revolution.
People who don’t want other people to read books that they don’t like assume that people cannot be trusted to figure things out for themselves. They believe that ideas need to be “processed” and “guarded”, the better to spoonfeed students. They’re not interested in promoting debate; as far as they’re concerned, “sa pamamahay ko, ako ang masusunod”. To understand where authoritarian tendencies reside, we should begin by looking closely at ourselves, our homes, and, yes, our schools.
The Supreme Court tells us that “Academic freedom has traditionally been associated as a narrow aspect of the broader area of freedom of thought, speech, expression and the press”. Narrow its purview may be, abusing academic freedom has much broader implications. If you have no problems undermining the concept of academic freedom, you also end up undermining every other freedom because, basically, you don’t think that freedom and democracy matter at all.
Freedom and democracy are foundational to this country and to the proper functioning of any state, market, and society. Those who have no respect for these foundational concepts subvert the very system they claim to be upholding or defending against so-called communist-terrorists.
It was Antonio Gramsci who in 1919 wrote that “To tell the truth, to arrive together at the truth, is a communist and revolutionary act” (“Workers Democracy” editorial, L’Ordine Nuovo [The New Order]). In this age of fake news and alternative facts, of illiberal politics undercutting civil liberties and democratic governance, of new technologies such as artificial intelligence that enhance the state’s power to control its people and are augmenting human reasoning and decision-making in unforeseeable ways, in this age of historical amnesia and lionizing of strongmen and their brood, anyone who adopts a critical stance and works to transform the system is likely to be labeled a subversive, a terrorist. Well, if telling the truth is a “communist and revolutionary act,” then may there be more communists and revolutionaries.