It is difficult to imagine literal book burnings being undertaken anywhere in America, save by a handful of eccentrics - though it is, of course, worth observing that mere eccentricity is no blemish on a man's character, at least not necessarily. A man may stand in contradiction to his times, and yet those times may themselves stand in contradiction to reality, being unreal, possessed of innumerable illusions and fantasies. In a less atomized, transient stage of our history, it might well have been possible to conceive of a small town or hamlet, somewhere in the vast expanses of our nation, taking a stand against some piece of salacious or pernicious literature, confident that it would be difficult to circumvent the ban. That time, some might argue, for the good, but mostly for ill, given the proliferation of "literature" of a type once proscribed under obscenity codes, has passed for the nonce. Protections once afforded to political and religious discourses, though not to sub-rational performances and displays, have been extended to cover these latter, while signs of contraction in the original protected sphere have been observed. Few limitations are imposed upon obscenities of any type, and yet it is illegal to air certain types of political discourse within two months of an election.
All of these things, however, are beside the present point. For, while we may speak somewhat jestingly of consigning certain works to the flames, what we are doing, if we do so reflectively, is expressing the conviction that there either is, or ought to be, a public orthodoxy, and that it is preferable that this orthodoxy be explicit when necessary. The rationale of any sensible book-burning - to continue in this vein - is simply that a society which reposes upon certain determinate traditions and customs may proscribe assaults upon these foundations that, in prudence, are deemed sufficiently grave or provocative, particularly likely to occasion scandal. No society is obliged to extend its protecting shelter, nor the dignity of "right", to its own subversion, and the means thereof.
Without belabouring the point, the singular and salubrious virtue of actually consigning to the flames some pernicious piece of writing is that of honesty: the declaration that there obtains, if fact, an orthodoxy which we mean to uphold. That act announces that there shall be no confusion, no ambiguity; certain ideas and the practices they sustain are excluded as inimical to a way of life. Now, the American settlement, which extended the freedoms of speech and religion to actual political, cultural, and religious discourse, rested upon a tacit understanding: America was a broadly Christian nation, at least in the cultural sense of the term, and this understanding established boundaries, however spacious, within which these freedoms were exercised. The Mormons were compelled not merely to abandon the pagan practice of polygamy, but to desist from the propagation of the doctrine, and this on Christian grounds. Seditious literature was confiscated, and its promoters sanctioned, and so forth. The American settlement was latitudinarian, though capable of firmness, and even the former quality was rooted in history. That older America would leave the dissenter and heretic to his rantings; but, goaded and provoked, would take an emphatic position. The older America, that is, would still declare, "Here we stand." Would still, that is, exhibit the virtue of honesty and clarity in self-definition and defense.
It need not be reiterated that this America is no more. Actually-existing America conjures neologisms in order to avoid the imperative of declaring definitively that certain ideas are inimical to her, as in a certain war on an asymmetrical military tactic. And actually-existing America maintains the forms and fictions of a robust public deliberation as to the common good, when the reality is that a concinnity of interests ensures that discourse is corralled within narrow confines, whether on foreign policy, economics, immigration, or any number of other issues. Deviationists are, of course, denounced, as xenophobes, protectionists, isolationists, or any number of other devil-terms. What, then, is the problem, insofar as the question of public orthodoxy is concerned? Do we not have one, and is it not declared?
The problem is first, that we are schizophrenic, in that our self-conception is of a nation with only the most minimal of creedal requirements, while our political and social practices say otherwise. Those creedal requirements are rather vague, and yet turn our to mean very specific things under the ministrations of the establishment. Second, and more substantially, what orthodoxies we observe are manifestly not the expressions of the deliberate sense of the people, as reflected in their representatives, but expressions of those interlocked, sometimes conflicting, but fundamentally uniform, interests. Which is why we will we suffer the same foreign, economic, and immigration policies, even if three-quarters of the people oppose the lot of them.
In other words, it would represent an advance of honesty were the establishment to openly ban and burn literature opposed to its cherished dogmas, an end to the dissembling which gives us the fiction of openness and the reality of constraint. And when this is grasped, we can perceive that the illusion of openness, of genuine options, is the means by which consent is constructed; we tolerate the charade because we believe that we might yet change it.
Ah, for the simplicity of a book burning, which would compel men to declare where they stand, and where also their enemies stand!