March 12th, 2018 Interview with Dr. Lee Hester at USAO

00:00 Max: Yes, the class that we’re taking, is the burning books class. The questions that we have largely have to do with Oklahoma history, including this first question, which is how does, how does the Oklahoma political climate behave relative to the national or federal level? For example, I have heard that it tends to lag. Is that true or can you elaborate on that any?

Dr. Hester: Um, it certainly seems as if Oklahoma lags socially. Politically, I’m not completely sure whether what we do is lag. Oklahoma historically has been an odd kind of populist state, in that populism can express itself in a lot of different ways. Historically, a long time ago, that populism expressed itself actually as socialism. Oklahoma was a hotbed of socialism, back around the time that Oklahoma was first made a state. So, there were substantial number of socialists including in politics. There were a lot of trade unions. There were co-ops, I mean all sorts of ways in which people were trying to work together. There was a great deal of distrust of big business. If you look in the original Oklahoma constitution, there is one of the longest constitutions ever written because everything is regulated and see nowadays, the Oklahoma legislature apparently doesn’t want to regulate anything because of course it’s going to stifle business, et Cetera, et cetera. Whereas back when they originally wrote the constitution, they regulated everything because they wanted to protect the people from big, bad business. So, the funny thing is Oklahoma- I think the Oklahoma populism has always been there, but the extent to which different political groups have managed to cash on that populism has changed a lot. But socially, I think that that idea was right when we do tend to lag, and I think we lag somewhere in the neighborhood of seven to ten years or so, socially behind the rest of the country.

02:45 Robert: Do you have an opinion on book censorship or censorship in general?

Dr. Hester: Well, that’s actually a tougher question in some ways than people think, or perhaps it appears to be a tougher problem today than it did just a couple of years ago, because of the current presidential administration.
Countries like Germany at the end of World War Two actually completely outlawed Nazi-ism. So all of the symbols of Nazi-ism are illegal, cannot be shown, the party, it is illegal and that’s about the most extreme kind of limitation on free speech than I can imagine. On the other hand, the reason is because the Nazis, in fact were evil, what they did was, was wrong. The method of government is wrongheaded, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So, the thing is that clearly they’re evil. The free marketplace of ideals or ideas on the other hand that supposedly the United States favors, and that is supposed to be part of the reason why we have a free speech, is supposed to allow the clash of ideas such that at the end of the day, those evil ones, the bad ones and so on, are pushed off the stage, and the good ideas are the ones that are left.

That’s ideally what ends up happening. The sad fact is that as we’ve seen recently, if there is a mood of acceptance of really awful opinions then you ended up having things like the riots and so on, caused the Nazi in white supremacists and so on. They used to not show their faces because they knew that they were scorned. Today, they appear to be happy to do that, and, obviously, it’s because they feel as if they’ve been normalized in some way by this administration, and they feel as if they can. I would love for them not to be able to, however, that of course would mean going against free speech. So, until now I would have said that free speech has to triumph and that free speech works because we ended up in fact marginalizing those groups because they are marginal at the Nazi, should be marginal, and they had been, but now all of a sudden, they feel empowered. I’m hoping this is a blip, that this is a momentary thing, that this is not a trend. I believe that is a momentary thing. If it is, then we can get back to life as normal in which those people with views that are repugnant to any form of civilization will have to go back to hiding in holes. I hope we get back to that. If we do, then, clearly, free speech is continuing to work. I’m not sure what happened, what we should do if we don’t. So, like I said, I think it’s tougher today. I’m certainly in favor of free speech in a general sense. I believe that theoretically it works, but right now this is just a weird time that we’re in and I’ve been around at this point will be more than half a century and I’ve haven’t seen anything quite like this, so I’m just not sure how to factor it in. I hope that helps. So, generally in favor, theoretically in favor. The sad thing is it appears as if free speech doesn’t necessarily always mean that good speech triumphs over bad speech. So that’s my concern.

08:38 Max :Do you know how book censorship was handled either nationwide or in the state of Oklahoma in the 1950’s and 60’s?

Dr. Hester: I haven’t made a special study of it. The one thing that I have been kind of generally aware of that I have not independently verified, but there was a very nice documentary that was done by Oklahoma educational television concerning Angie Debo, and I found it to be particularly poignant. Angie Debo, of course, wrote And Still the Waters Run, and many, many other books based on her research into Oklahoma history and the history of American Indian nations. She is a very good researcher- well I should say was, she passed away some time back in Oklahoma – who, evidently, came here I guess on a covered wagon. Found there to be cities here. Was surprised by that because she had grown up with a rather stereotypical view that Indians all lived in teepees. That, here in Oklahoma, there might be a few scattered Indians, but instead she found cities when she out here, so she set out to try to understand the real history of Oklahoma rather than the stereotypes that she’d grown up with. And she published all of these books which are really outstanding books, but it turns out that the University of Oklahoma refused to publish them, particularly the ones having to do with Oklahoma history, because they didn’t want that history to be exposed. In fact, they ended up being published by Princeton, so she kind of fell upward. I think most people would agree that Princeton is a more prestigious press then OU is, so, the work was solid work. The history was good history, unfortunately, it’s a history that Oklahoma doesn’t like to recognize. So, in that sense the attempts to censor her additionally, it turns out that, at least according to this documentary, her only work of fiction, she actually wrote one book of fiction, her only work of fiction, is the only work of hers that the State allows state funds to be used to purchase for use in public schools.

Now, that is a roundabout way of censorship. Clearly, our schools are not going to use – cannot use – books that they don’t have the funds to be able to purchase. So, if the documentary is true, and I have no reason to believe it isn’t, then, in fact, probably, the greatest historian of Oklahoma’s early history is effectively banned from use. Now of course she is a, a fairly tough writer and I probably wouldn’t use her for anything earlier than high school, but still the idea that they literally would not approve her books for use in the state seems problematic. There may be other instances of censorship that have happened that I’m not aware of. Again, that’s something that I haven’t really specialized in looking into.

13:16 Robert: Have you heard of the 1960’s Banning of Catcher in the Rye in Tulsa?

Dr. Hester: Haven’t specifically heard of it. I know for sure that historically there have been books like Catcher in the Rye and others that local school boards have ended up being, so, I’m not surprised by that one, but it just kind of blurs into all the rest of them because those do happen pretty regularly on a local basis. Um, do you have kind of a generic question about that one or about those kinds of bans generally?

Robert: What’s the historical context of those bans?

14:04 Dr. Hester: Historical context? That’s an interesting question and actually it’s something that I’d like to think about it a little bit longer is something I haven’t thought about. Clearly the bans were not even an issue for a long time, probably because no one would have thought to use those books in class. Then, eventually they were starting to use them in class. But again, probably were not that big of an issue because the parents weren’t really aware that they were being used and then eventually the parents were aware and probably started at that point, in some cases, getting unhappy. It’s a complicated issue and I think that there’s a lot more underlying than just what I’ve said here. There are different political movements that are going on in the United States that end up using morality as an element of political power that occurs to this very day.

Everything from patriotism or lack thereof, to being a true American, whatever that means, to when your family came over, were they on the Mayflower, to you name it, ended up being used as ways of trying to say that one group or another group is good or right. So, the thing is, I would bet you if I did just a little bit of research that I could probably tie the upswing of a banning of those books to certain political movements that were attempting to gain more power at the time and use the books as a cause celeb to gain that power. That’s my bet. But the thing is that without a little bit of research, I wouldn’t be able to lay out a good case for that. So anyway, I hope that helps a little bit, but, probably in just a day or two of looking into things, I could probably end up linking them because I’ll betcha there is a link. I think it’s fairly clear, for example, that there was a link between abortion and conservative political movements and so on, that being used as a special cause. I would also bet that that’s true with banning, especially things like Catcher in the Rye.

17:32 Max : I don’t have any other prepared questions. Do you have any?

Robert: I don’t think so.

Dr. Hester: Well if you guys want to come back to me at some point. The thing is that those are things that I haven’t looked into that much. Oklahoma’s populism and our swing from being astonishingly socialist state or well, staunchly socialist, a hotbed of socialism, we were never majority socialist. But the thing is that there actually was a period of time when there were more socialists registered socialists in the state of Oklahoma, than there were in New York City in New York. And considering the population differential, that’s really remarkable. It’s also remarkable because you would think of New York as being such a metropolitan area and so on that it would be the perfect breeding ground for socialism. And socialism generally is supposed to be an urban worker, kind of movement instead, what you end up having here in Oklahoma, is it turning into a farmers movement. The farmers effect a kind of entrepreneurial group and the middleman, the grain elevator owners, the gin mill owners, the transporters, the whole salers, all of those folks, as well as the bankers that eventually ended up getting liens on their land and so on. They ended up really putting a lot of pressure on the Oklahoma farmer to the point where they really are very accomplished, reactionary against business and so on.

The early constitution clearly is that way. We have an entire section in the constitution just on the grading of kerosene. And the reason for that was that there had been businesses that were adulterating their kerosene, kind of stretching it by putting in more volatile compounds. And the problem is that those more volatile compounds caused it to be dangerous. And so people’s houses were burning up- people were being killed by this unscrupulous practice, a big business and the Oklahoma constitution very carefully spelled out what the grades kerosene were or how are these supposed to be met and so on. The thing is that they were very big into, into consumer protection, which seems to almost be the opposite of Oklahoma today.

That switch then ends up coming about here in Oklahoma, it really is an interesting one. That is more nearly what I have been interested in than specifically things like banning of books and so on. I think you can see why, it really is weird. In my class there is a quick and easy answer. The quick and easy answer is World War One, specifically the Green Horn Rebellion screwed up the socialists, but it’s really more than that. A lot of it was national, yes, but our populism could have ended up going some other way. Unfortunately, populism can fall easy prey to demagogues, that’s a fairly common issue. So, today it may not be that surprising that Oklahoma should end up Trump country because he’s the most demagogic of demagogues out there right now.