Former President Barack Obama has long claimed that he learned — or improved — his capacity for empathy by his engagement with literature. Today he issued a statement in defense of literature and more largely a defense of freedom of expression and difference of opinion.
Concerned that “some of the books that shaped my life,” Obama writes, “are being challenged by people who disagree with certain ideas or perspectives,” he reminds Americans that their freedom of expression, codified in law, is the envy of the free world — and currently at risk.
Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and Walt Whitman — to name a few — have contributed, Obama says, to his essential understanding of the “country’s character.”
Obama finds more than alarming the current censorship of books going on throughout the country. And while he appears most concerned about conservatives circumscribing what’s “allowed” on the basis of a fundamentalist bias against how certain people live, Obama also mentions the regrettable cases where books expressing conservative beliefs have “triggered” liberals and been targeted for banishment.
Today, some of the books that shaped my life—and the lives of so many others—are being challenged by people who disagree with certain ideas or perspectives. And librarians are on the front lines, fighting every day to make the widest possible range of viewpoints, opinions, and… pic.twitter.com/txhCTfH3Gh— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) July 17, 2023
The censorship and the favoring of “silence” over rebuttal, healthy argument and engagement is, Obama believes, “profoundly misguided.”
And he has a poignant warning for those who argue against literary inclusiveness on the basis of intolerant religious practice and faith, as is often the case in America.
“It is the sacred texts,” Obama writes, “that some calling for book bannings in this country claim to want to want to defend — that have often been the first target of censorship and book banning efforts in authoritarian countries.”