Don’t Steal Any Books, No Matter What Abbie Said. But Do Read Some of Them

If you were around in 1978, you may have heard something about Donald Duck comic books being banned in Finland.

I don’t know if they’re still banned.

I learned of this milestone when The San Francisco Chronicle printed a short article about it.  The Tomorrow Show on NBC also had a minor feature, with Tom Snyder reading aloud a news story about the Finnish government’s reasoning in protecting the public from Donald’s unscrupulous behavior.

The NBC set used for The Tomorrow Show was inordinately quiet compared to the set for The Tonite Show, which aired immediately before.  Tom Snyder had no studio audience and no musicians.  I remember the Donald Duck story sounding especially weird when it was repeated under those conditions.

Donald Duck is a jerk.  Almost any fowl creature who wears a sailor suit without serving in the Armed Forces is a jerk.  Agreed?  I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even know how to swim.  Donald also promotes himself shamelessly and laughs at the expense of others.  A narcissist among narcissists.  Maybe that’s why the worst president in U.S. history is named after him, but please don’t hold the name against other Donalds.  Some of them are really nice guys.  I used to know one.

In 1978, the genuine problems with Donald Duck’s moral character were not the issues in Finland, though.  The comic books were banned because of exposed tailfeathers and Donald’s apparent “common law” relationship with Daisy.

Banning media material for almost any reason should bother people. Sadly, some quiet censorship squeaks by in the United States, in spite of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Example: Peyton Place, the 1956 novel by Grace Metalious, was kept out of most public libraries and not sold in many bookstores, although it was popular enough with readers to warrant a television adaptation.  The cat and mouse game was amusing.  Teenagers quietly circulated the book among themselves, hiding it under mattresses when they weren’t reading under the covers with flashlights.  Some adults were equally serious about keeping it discreet.  Peyton Place proved to be a pretty good literary novel, but that wasn’t why it was popular.  I won’t go there.  For the record, the book is easy to find now and available on Kindle.

Circa 1970, a major publishing house agreed initially to publish Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman.  Steal This Book was full of instructions on how to commit everything from petty offenses to identity theft to small-scale acts of destruction.  On the surface, it looked dangerous.  However, I read the book in the late 1980s and questioned whether most of the instructions could be carried out successfully.  It was primarily a humor piece.

The publishing house was contacted by a government agency, and the contract with the author was canceled soon after.  The book still saw the light of day, but only after being self-published as an original mass market paperback.  Grove Press acted as a distributor, which meant some stores could stock it (very few did).  Steal This Book was also sold by mail, but only if the reader sent a cash or money order payment.  No personal checks, no C.O.D.s.  People who wanted to read it could get the book one way or another, if they were patient enough.

When Americans are told flat out that some of us can’t read or view something, there’s a more pronounced public reaction.  This is notable when literary and other educational books are removed from school libraries or class reading lists.  However, it’s accepted that some forms of entertainment will (supposedly) be kept out of reach of minors, on the grounds that children and adolescents haven’t developed the critical thinking skills to avoid being influenced improperly.  That’s the reasoning behind our movie ratings system.

As a reaction to school library and curriculum censorship, some Americans have been highly vocal in expressing disappointment in a system which supposedly protects freedom of expression.

Not every society agrees with us on keeping censorship to a minimum.  Or, maybe some of them do, even if the law is a sticking point.  Read on…

How many of you remember a 1980s memoir titled Spycatcher? Peter Wright was a former MI5 officer whose book was banned by the British government, but published abroad.  It was a bestseller in the U.S.  After several years of legal struggles and dealing with the reality that government secrets had already been compromised, the memoir was made available to readers in the U.K.


In the Spycatcher case, censors working for a European government at least had an interest in protecting information which might endanger someone if it became public.  That was what they said, anyway.  It’s difficult to understand how a cartoon duck prompts similar action.

The fact that Donald Duck wears no pants was common knowledge way before 1978.  Speculation on the extent of Donald’s relationship with his lady friend may have been initiated in 1978, but, uh, really folks…

Please accept my apologies for failing to provide documentation for every claim in this post.  Some of the material is recalled from memory, but readers who want to fact check should find that easy enough to carry out with search engines.  The link to a BBC report on the Spycatcher controversy is included because the legal case has a larger singular role in 20th Century history.




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