Naturally, I join the outrage directed at any school board that would presume to ban a book—let alone because they don’t want students to confront the traumas of history—but I am almost as offended by the self-proclaimed defenders of culture in the anti-copyright crowd. How dare the McMinn County Board of Education ban Maus? But at the same time, how dare anyone write this?
Really? The survival of culture depends on libraries owning ebooks?
Yes, the tweet was posted by the same Maria Bustillos who inspired my last post about the library associations’ anti-copyright agenda, and I certainly do not mean to pick on her alone. On the contrary, I wouldn’t bother with that tweet if its fallacies were not endemic among organizations with the power to lobby legislatures. It is a sentiment within a hubristic narrative which asserts that, if not for copyright getting in the way, digital repositories like libraries would keep culture burning like a flame amid the forces of darkness. More specifically, Bustillos et al ask us to believe that libraries owning, rather than licensing, ebooks would serve as a hedge against censorship. But how?
If the Tennessee school board, and other officials who behave likewise, are indeed riding a wave of illiteracy toward authoritarianism, it is certain that those forces will not leave the libraries intact either. Moreover, if that is where we are headed as a nation (and there days we all wonder), forget the ebooks and prepare for civil war. But if that dire outcome is not what we are talking about, and we are instead witnessing just another sad example in a long history of bumbling, mouth-breathing attempts to ban books, then we can temper the “protect culture” language because it looks like the “evil” commercial market has got this one.
I admit it has been satisfying to watch the sentiment in that tweet wither in the sunlight of Maus topping best-seller lists in response to the Tennessee school board ban. Whether this groundswell is borne of curiosity to read a banned book or a desire to raise a middle finger at the censors (doubtless it is both), the entire narrative is an endorsement, not an indictment, of Art Spiegelman’s copyright rights. After the assault on the Capitol, I wrote a post reaffirming a claim I had made in 2013 that “A great bulwark against tyranny would be a class of unusually wealthy poets.” In principle, the consumer response to the Maus ban is exactly what I had in mind.
Libraries are wonderful institutions, but enemies of culture have a habit of burning them down. Or in the case of America’s public libraries, they can simply defund them as easily as they remove books from school curricula. Ebook collections in libraries are not a bulwark against that kind of wanton destruction, but empowering authors and artists with certain property rights in their work and, yes, money remains a powerful mechanism for keeping the philistines at bay.