Culture and the commissars

Plato - a superb literary stylist in an era when the well-articulated idea was as powerful as it has ever been in history - seems to have worried more about the influence of music than words. Martial music, he feared, could inflame a populace to go to war. So keep an eye on the poets and rhetoricians maybe, but really watch out for the composers of those stirring marches.

In 1982, on the other hand - when 54 percent of all Americans read at a level below the 11th grade - little is said about the potentially sinister effects of heavy-metal rock, except by ear specialists. But grave concern is voiced at near-rock decibels about the corrupting capability of books.

According to the General Accounting Office, about half the owners who can afford to buy new automobiles fail to respond to defect-recall notices because they don't comprehend them. Johnny the car owner can't read. Yet it is assumed by a lot of Americans, for a lot of different reasons, that everything from the American Heritage Dictionary to ''The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'' constitutes a high-risk menace to us poor lip-readers. Spare us functional illiterates George Orwell's ''1984'' and Alexander Solzhenitsyn's ''One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich'' as well.

If only those two admirable novels were within the general ken of the auto-recall reader!

But lest book-banning in the Western world be thought of as a peculiarly American phenomenon, consider the latest news from France. The French, noting that over half of their population (according to the Ministry of Culture) stand guiltless of having read a book, understand that the chief danger of literature comes from whatever may be learned about it via the audio-visual signals of TV. This presumably was the logic of Regis Debray, France's special counselor for cultural affairs, when he announced that the government has plans for ''getting rid of'' a Friday night literary talk show, ''Apostrophes.''

Perhaps Debray, a friend of the late Che Guevara, found ''Apostrophes'' too conservative for his taste, though when he himself had a book out, as one publisher observed, he was happy to appear on the program in order to reach its estimated 3.2 million viewers of literary show-and-tell.

At any rate, when Debray made public his intention of breaking up ''Apostrophes'' - this alleged ''dictatorship over the book market'' - he was not, as he may have expected, hailed as a liberator but as a hit-man. One Paris newspaper slapped Debray's picture on the front page with a headline reading: ''Cultural terrorism.'' Even Liberation, a left-wing daily, accused Debray of belonging to ''a puritan cultural offensive now being waged by a certain left-wing fringe.''

Caught in the middle, President Francois Mitter-rand - who appeared twice on ''Apostrophes'' to talk about his own books in his pre-presidential days - spoke of ''my friend Regis Debray'' while bowing with equal diplomacy in the direction of ''Apostrophes'' (''I like it a lot'').

Somehow it never seems inappropriate that attempts at regulating taste should end up as a comedy. It gives too much solemn power to bad ideas to assume that they must be outlawed or else they will destroy good ideas. The philosophy of a free economy is that good products will drive out shoddy products. Why can't we have the same faith in the intellectual marketplace?

Let Debray complain - but then produce his own ''Apostrophes.'' Let American book-banners make their criticisms - but then devote themselves to promoting the books they like rather than trying to blacklist those they disapprove of.

Taste-twisting does not always come to a comic ending. It must be remembered that Plato's teacher, Socrates, was executed for the crime of corrupting his students. We are now all of us Socrates' students in one way or another. As such , we can believe that the martyrdom of his master convinced the would-be cultural policeman in Plato - as it convinces us - of Socrates' final unspoken lesson: The climate of the censor is almost always even worse than the climate he attempts to purge.

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