In 1953, American writer Ray Bradbury published a novel titled “Fahrenheit 451,” which is the temperature at which paper “catches fire and burns.”
Fittingly, the novel sounds the alarm about a possible future in the United States where books and other documents deemed “dangerous” to society are unearthed, confiscated, and then publicly burned. The lead character is a “fireman” who becomes disillusioned with his mission and seeks out ways to preserve the very books and documents he had set out to destroy.
The political environment in which Bradbury wrote “Fahrenheit 451” is obvious: It was the early 1950s and US Sen. Joseph McCarthy had launched an inquiry into “un-American” activities not just in government agencies and the military but also in academic institutions and even Hollywood. His novel, Bradbury told an interviewer, was a reaction to fears that the anti-communist hysteria and the methods used by McCarthy to intimidate witnesses and ferret out possible suspects would lead to book-burning in America.
Bradbury was using not just his imagination in creating such a scenario. It had a solid precedent in history—the rise of the Nazi party in Germany when, as a report in this paper recalls, party officials led by propagandist Joseph Goebbels began a purge of “un-German” ideas among the public, beginning with the public burning of books that contained material deemed undesirable by the Nazis. German poet Heinrich Heine had a grim foreboding: “This was a prelude only. Wherever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn human beings.”
Heine’s words proved prophetic. At the end of World War II, it was revealed that at least six million Jews (as well as gay people, Gypsies, and other dissenters) in Germany and in other areas overtaken by the Nazis had been incarcerated in concentration camps where they were conscripted into forced labor, starved, and ultimately killed, either by mass shootings or burned in huge ovens.
In the Philippines today, such a horrific eventuality seems distant and unimaginable. But, troublingly, ongoing is a campaign targeting young people that bears echoes of Bradbury’s nightmare scenario and even the Nazi book-burning campaign.
Last September, three state educational institutions—Kalinga State University (KSU), Isabela State University (ISU), and Aklan State University (ASU)—were reported to have purged from their libraries “books and other reading materials about peace negotiations between the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) and other topics deemed anti-government by the military.”
Justifying the ISU’s action, university president Ricmar Aquino said the move was in support of President Duterte’s “whole of nation approach” on the insurgency, and for the protection of the youth.
An appalled Elvira Lapuz, librarian of the University of the Philippines Diliman, warned that the campaign against “undesirable” reading materials “shows how little faith we have in our youth. It clearly says that we do not trust them at all to be conscious, aware and critical of the materials they have or have been given access to.”
Pushback has also come from officials of the UP Visayas, based in Iloilo. “Sorry, not a single Marxist book, or any similar so-called ‘subversive’ material, will be removed from UPV’s library collection. Baka dagdagan ko pa ’yan eh (We might even add more),” UPV Chancellor Clement Camposano said in a Facebook post.
A university, he said, is or should be a “free marketplace of ideas” and that the mission of an educational institution is “to train and sharpen the minds of our students by challenging and exposing them to the widest latitude of ideas to produce intellectuals and reformers… When we are afraid of books, then we have a problem.”
Among the publications removed by the ISU was the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law, a document agreed upon by the Philippine government itself and the local rebel movement as a starting ground for peace talks. This and other confiscated books were turned over to the regional offices of the Regional Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (RTF-Elcac), which has become controversial not just for its witch-hunting of alleged communist presence in schools and government offices but also for its humongous funding.
Remarkable is how an organization supposedly devoted to defending the democratic state against the communist ideology should think it should start by cramping the minds, intellectual ability, and curiosity of young people. Young people who are precisely in university to broaden their horizons and gain access to a universe of knowledge and opinion critical to their growth as discerning, engaged citizens.
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