BPTL #10: BRING PHILOSOPHY TO LIFE
Philosophy thrives in the agora; in the Ivory Tower it wilts and dies. This series of podcasts seeks to connect daily human life throughout the globe with universal ideas and principles. Each week the various media present a confusing set of events and actions that require deeper reflection. These Agora podcasts attempt to identify and analyze one or more of those events and the fundamental ideas and principles they embody.
Blog # 10: Censorship
I took this photo on October 13, 2019. It sprang to mind when I read about the recent removing of books from a school in the state of Florida. Here is an excerpt about the Florida event from The New Yorker:
Brian Covey, a father in Duval County, in northern Florida, was recently greeted by his children with some alarming news. “Did you hear what happened at school today?” his daughter asked him. “They took all the books out of the classrooms.” When he went to investigate, he saw bookshelves covered with paper to hide their contents, and later visited another school, where he found bookshelves emptied altogether. As Charles Bethea reports in a new dispatch, schools in several Florida counties have taken steps to limit access to books while awaiting staff retraining in response to new state legislation, which requires that reading materials “be free of pornography and suited to ‘student needs,’ as determined by a librarian or school media specialist.” Additionally, districts have been told to “err on the side of caution,” as to what books are appropriate for students, and there has even been talk of felony charges for teachers who violate the new law. Covey, who was educated in the same school district where his children were studying, said he had never heard of such a thing happening before, “But I read books about the consequences of this kind of thing when I was in school.” He was thinking of “Fahrenheit 451” and “1984,” he said (Charles Bethea, The Daily, February 7, 2023).
I took the photo when I was attending a protest with 10,000 other people held in Bebelplatz that is located next to Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany, where Karl Marx had studied with the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. The protest was related to the bombing of a synagogue in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, October 9, 2019. Two people died and two others were injured. Twenty-seven-year-old Stephan Balliet, a neo-Nazi, confessed to the attack and was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2020.
Bebelplatz was the site of the first official Nazi book burning in a bonfire on May 10, 1933. The purpose of that bonfire was to frighten Nazi opponents and to destroy “the Jewish mind and the whole rotten liberalist tendency” by burning 20,000 works, including those by Karl Marx, Bertold Brecht, and Thomas Mann. In the photo we see a skylight looking into the so-called “sunken library,” a 50 square meter underground library with empty shelves (www.Berlin.de).
Liberals and progressives are clearly the target of recent policies and laws in Florida that have been initiated and supported by Governor Ron DeSantis. Bethea’s article connects this action against certain books with other actions by the current governor of Florida:
DeSantis previously pushed for the passage of a “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which disallows the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity . . . and another bill, known as the Stop woke Act, which prohibits teaching that someone “must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” on account of their race or sex. (In November, a judge temporarily blocked the bill from being enforced at the college level.) DeSantis has proposed mandating Western Civilization courses and banning diversity-equity-and-inclusion programs; his administration recently halted the introduction of advanced-placement classes in African American history, which the College Board had been developing for more than a decade. The College Board subsequently announced revisions to the curriculum, eliminating readings on such topics as critical race theory and Black feminism (Charles Bethea, The Daily, February 7, 2023).
I have already introduced the topic of censorship and shared some relevant recent examples in Blog #3 entitled “Freedom of Speech,” but these recent events urge more reflection on this issue that is so important for democracy as well as for any other form of government that prizes truth and reality.
I begin with the philosophical claim that “free speech” includes all media that shape how we think and what we think about our existence. This implies that censorship of all media is a threat to democracy. This claim is consistent with the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and it applies to human existence everywhere. Contemporary technology has vastly expanded the possible ways by which we manifest and communicate ideas. This applies not only to daily newspapers and weekly magazines but also to books, films, video programs, music, paintings, sculpture, dance, architecture, dramatic performances, and especially to the new media that have become so influential with the advent of the Internet. In the current blog I will focus on the arts and defer examination of the social media to Blog #11.
From a philosophical point of view, it is especially important to consider not only the content but also the form of all media. For example, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union were hostile to abstract art, whereas some parts of the Islamic tradition prohibit specific content such as images of Mohammed. One result of that doctrine is that Islamic art contains some of the most exquisite visual examples of formalism, such as the geometric mosaic patterns found in Islamic architecture. A recent incident at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, illustrates the kind of conflict that can emerge when artistic content is censored. Consider this excerpt from the New York Times:
Hamline University officials made an about-face on Tuesday in its treatment of a lecturer who showed an image of the Prophet Muhammad in an art history class, walking back one of their most controversial statements — that showing the image was Islamophobic. They also said that respect for Muslim students should not have superseded academic freedom. University officials changed their stance after the lecturer, who lost her teaching job, sued the small Minnesota school for religious discrimination and defamation.
“Like all organizations, sometimes we misstep,” said a statement from Ellen Watters, the chair of the university’s board of trustees, and Fayneese S. Miller, the president. “In the interest of hearing from and supporting our Muslim students, language was used that does not reflect our sentiments on academic freedom. Based on all that we have learned, we have determined that our usage of the term ‘Islamophobic’ was therefore flawed.”
The statement added, “It was never our intent to suggest that academic freedom is of lower concern or value than our students — care does not ‘supersede’ academic freedom, the two coexist” (Vimal Patel, The New York Times, January 17, 2023).
Both freedom of speech and academic freedom are essential to democracy, and the arts are especially important because they encompass not only the crucial value of truth but also other values such as goodness, beauty, and holiness. These values are no less important for a good life than are justice and truth.
The form/content distinction is linked to two different functions of the arts in general, corresponding to the distinction between intrinsic value and extrinsic value. Many works of art focus on pure form, with little or no connection with social or practical content. Consider a concert I attended in Key West, Florida, on Sunday, February 12, 2023, sponsored by Key West Impromptu, a classical music series. A young Hungarian pianist, Zoltan Fejevari, played a concert featuring works by Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, and Schumann with no commentary either on the music or the composers. This was pure musical form, valuable for its own sake, not for its external goals. On the other end of the spectrum, we have music and poetry that is especially strong and attractive because of its extrinsic content. On February 1, 2023, Heather Cox Richardson, in her Letters from an American, reflected on Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” that was first published in the Atlantic Monthly on February 1, 1862. According to Richardson’s account, Howe was inspired by a popular song— “John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in the grave; his soul is marching on”—that she heard Civil War troops singing on their way home. The result was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which Richardson says, “defines the Civil War as a holy war for human freedom.” The extrinsic purpose of that music, especially when combined with Howe’s lyrics, is to promote the victory of Union forces and to preserve the United States as a single nation. The formal aspect has some intrinsic value, but that pales in comparison to its social and political purpose.
On January 28, 2023, the South Florida Symphony Orchestra performed two works at the Tennessee Williams Theater in Key West that not only displayed beautiful musical forms but also featured content with substantial extrinsic value. Sebrina Maria Alfonso, Conductor and Music Director of the South Florida Symphony Orchestra, preceded the performance of Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony #9 with a description of the relation between Shostakovich and Joseph Stalin. In the Soviet Union, music was supposed to serve a social and political purpose. The Austrian philosopher, Ernst Fischer, in his book The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach (1959), described the function of the arts as helping isolated individuals find their way back to the collective. Formalism was seen as doing the opposite. Tension between Shostakovich and Stalin was intense, and the composer was in constant fear of being denounced as an enemy of the people and shipped off to a labor camp. In the program notes to the Key West performance of Symphony #9, A. Ian Fraser points out that within three years of its first performance, the Soviet Censorship Board banned the work completely along with a number of his other works.” This excerpt from www.carnegie.org explicitly designates formalism as the problem: “The state’s stranglehold on the arts was tightened by Andrei Zhdanov, a government official in charge of postwar cultural activities. He decreed the music of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, and several others destructive to the state and the composers guilty of “formalism.” The ambiguous term served as a catch-all to castigate any artist who earned the state’s displeasure.”
Less explicit, but relevant to the current cultural situation in Florida, is the presence of another work on that same program that had its world premiere, Ocklawaha by John D. Gottsch, Composer-in-Residence of the South Florida Symphony Orchestra. Gottsch’s music is filled with content, first and foremost musical images of the Oklawaha River, which the program notes identify as “Tales my father told of Florida’s Heart of Darkness River.” The fifth movement presents “Loss and lament of My Captain,” a reference to Abraham Lincoln. The sixth movement stems “From a deep welling spring, insurrectionists and zealots ever bubble forth as the Silver River.” In the program notes Gottsch refers specifically to “the great warriors Osceola and Micanopy, who led the resistance to the taking of their lands in the Seminole Wars, who protected fugitive slaves and fought slaveholders’ attempts to reclaim their asserted property.”
The content of this music brings us back to where we started, a political context in which the arts are threatened with censorship. The so-called “culture wars” that are currently being fought throughout the U.S. potentially affect all media and perhaps the very existence of democracy itself. Already in Books 2 and 3 of Plato’s Republic, we can see the banning of poetry, drama, and other stories move smoothy to censorship of the other arts, especially music, because its powerful emotional impact on the human soul. I interpret this dialogue not as a literal description of an ideal society that Plato is promoting but as a clear display of what a totalitarian society looks like. Later in the dialogue, Socrates, Glaucon, and Adeimantus show what is wrong with the first republic they construct in their imagination and offer a better version that does not contain such censorship. That discussion must wait for a later blog, but for now my concern is the parallel between the censorship proposed in Plato’s dialogue and the authoritarian nature of the anti-Woke rhetoric that currently thrives in Florida and elsewhere. Florida, we are told by the current governor, is where “Woke goes to die.” Censoring books and the other arts is clearly central to that project. We will no doubt return to this and related issues as this series continues.
For now, I will end this blog with a suggestion concerning the ongoing quarrel between form and content in the arts. I do not think we should choose between formalism, on one hand, and the moral and political content that is so important in human life, on the other. Once again, Plato leads the way. Consider this passage from the opening of Book 2 of The Republic:
Glaucon: . . . Tell me how you would analyze goodness. Isn’t there a kind of good that is desirable for its own sake, independent of its consequences, such as joy and delight in harmless pleasures?
Socrates: I agree.
Glaucon: And what would you say about another kind of good that is desirable not only in itself but also because of its consequences, such as thinking, seeing, and being healthy?
Socrates: I would say yes to that kind of good.
Glaucon: And isn’t there a third form of good, one that is annoying in itself but valuable for what it produces? Consider bodybuilding, medical treatment, and earning a living. We don’t choose such activities for their own sake but for their results.
Socrates: Yes, there is also that kind. But why are you asking these questions?
Glaucon: Because I want to know how you would classify justice.
Socrates: I would say it is the best kind of good, desirable both for its own sake and for its consequences. 
Justice is “the best kind of good” because it is desirable for its own sake and for its consequences. In other words, its value is both intrinsic and extrinsic, as are “thinking, seeing, and being healthy.” I would say the same of the arts. The best kind of art is both good for its own sake and for its consequences, so neither its form nor its content should be censored if democracy is to prevail. Perhaps the ultimate model for that kind of combination is Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which not only manifests exquisite form but currently serves as the anthem for the European Union, showing both intrinsic and extrinsic value.