Metin Parlak- ICD program coordinator
The concept of cultural hegemony was tackled by Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci who developed a framework which dictates that the ideas of the ruling class are channelled into society with the aim of establishing artificial norms. Such norms stemming from ideological, religious or nationalistic beliefs are said to benefit everyone, but in truth they merely pave the way for the ruling class’ ideal society. Book burning has been consistently used throughout human history as a physical manifestation of cultural hegemony; books deemed undesirable have been burned, usually in a ceremonial fashion for all to see and to convey a united assault on the works.
Undoubtedly the most famous historical example of book burning is that which was orchestrated by the Nazi government on the 10th of May 1933 where 25,000 volumes of “un-German” texts were burned. The systematic burning of books which conflicted with Nazi ideology included written classics by the likes of Marx, Darwin, Freud and Heine. Heinrich Heine the prolific German poet of Jewish decent died 40 years before the future Nazi Leader was to be born yet Hitler fulfilled Heine’s famous admonition that “those who burn books, will ultimately burn humans”. The quote has a lot to say about the intolerance surrounding those who see burning books as an accomplishment. The ordeal is a distasteful act against enlightenment and reason rooted in bigotry and dogmatism.
The burning of books in history was a means through which the ruling regime demonstrated its displeasure at the material in question, whilst also physically censoring the content by destroying it; or at least drastically reducing its circulation capability. In present times however, the former has taken precedence as the latter has become practically impossible due to internet archives and increased means of obtaining pariah texts.
Extremist governments such as the former Afghan ruling Taliban regime have exercised cultural hegemony and irrational barbarism notoriously destroying 2000 year old Buddhist statues carved into mountains. Today however, the predominant actors of book burning are individuals or extremist groups who want to express disapproval publicly. In a famous modern example Pastor Jones of the Dove World Outreach Centre in Florida threatened to burn 200 copies of the Qur’an on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The threats alone lead to mass upheaval in Northern Afghanistan resulting in 30 deaths and 150 injuries.
It is evident then that book burning will always be around and will be used by people as a reactionary tool through which they can generate a media frenzy reaching vast audiences; much like flag burning. I would like to leave you with this satirical quote from Norman Thomas. “If you want a symbolic gesture, don’t burn the flag; wash it” in the case of books, if you don’t like the content, don’t burn it, challenge it.