It began with a burning and it ended with a burning. At first it was just books, but by the end it included album covers, magazines and even television sets. It was creepy, because bok-burnings are always creepy, because they’re about trying to stop ideas existing and especially about keeping the young from finding out anything that doesn’t replicate their perents’ beliefs, that might change them out of being mindless, ignorant copies of their parents. How is it good parenting, true parenting, true love for a boy or a girl you have created to want them to be less than they can possibly be?
There were two censorship stories in this episide of Lou Grant but one was lightweuight and comic, aptly so because it involved Charlie Hume refusing to run a satirical cartoon strip that accused a California Senator of being in Arab politics, the fuss it caused, the Senator’s refusal, to take legal action and the cartoonist suing the Trib for breach of contract for failing to publish. That”s still censorship, but it’s the very thin end of the wedge.
The thick end is Altamira, where the book-burning(s) are takiing place. Rossi went out there to investigate, armed with an introduction to Mitchell Webster (Richard Dysart, later of LA Law), editor of the local newspaper and an old buddy of Lou. Webster had changed though. It was obvious from the outset, his overplayed avuncularity, his Altamira-is-a-nice-town-full-of-nice-people schtick.
But a very popular, very enthusiastic, very thought-provoking teacher Marilyn Keefer (Laurie Heineman) had been fired for refusing to drop books that are part of the National Curriculum, books with ‘radical’ ideas, asnd wound up working in a cowboy bar in a bare mid-riff fringed top and probably the shortest skirt in the entire run (so short we weren’t allowed more than tjhe briefest glimpse of the approximate position of its hem). She filled in Rossi on the Paul Revere Society, a self-appointed groupn of concerned citizens, out to drive ‘progressive’ ideas out alongside the ‘filth’.
There was also Irene Teal (Karen Ingenthron), the Librarian who brought her daughter here after her divorce, to live in a quiet, peaceful, nice town, who has to deal with famous and classic books being removed from the shelves, who has to accept borrowers editing The Catcher in the Rye by cutting out lines they don’t like with scissors, turning pages into doilies, who goes to dinner with Rossi in a place that makes lasagne with American cheese because she’s afraid for her job if she’s seen talking to him.
There’s the owner of the motel where Rossi’s staying, who takes out the televisipn to burn it, and bans it at home, because a popular character in a popular sitcom mentions being on the Pill.
Webster, an aptly chosen name is the spider in the centre, lying stories, slanted stories, praising the Paul Revere Society before they’d even formed, running their PO Box, creating, not reporting the news. And why? His son Jim, a Vietnam vet, died in 1969. not from the war, but from getting mixed up with drugs when he got back to LA (the episode was rigidly silent on the possibility that Jim Webster got hooked on drugs in Vietnam as a response to such a shitty war because if it hadn’t been you would never have seen this episode). Webster was out to stop the corruption spreading.
He was a fightened and confused man. They were all frightened and confused men and women, well-meaning and, in a way that would get the episode on the air, they were immocent. They wanted the best for their children and their neighbours.
And what made this episode horrible to bear was they we are their future. this episode was broadcast in January 1980. Before the year was out, Ronald Reagan would be elected President on a rising tide of fear, selfishness and conservatism (for what else is conservatism but the denand that you should do only what I allow?) This was a warning of what has become Trump and Johnson, with no end in sight, only we missed all the signs. We thought they had good intentions. We thought that they were just misguided.
But they burnt books out of fear of what was in them. The people who do that cannot ever be trusted to leave you alone. And too many still can’t see that.