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Ramming Values Down Other People’s Throats

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In Texas, a group called the Republican Leadership Council is asking that the local public library board pull a couple of children’s books from the shelves. Another group, calling themselves Mainstream Montgomery County has reared up its head in opposition, siting the usual stuff about separation of church and state and not imposing religious values on others.

In some places, this story’s been brought up by people suggesting that book banning is one step away from book burning. Hmm. Perhaps. But a search through Google shows darned few hard news stories on this issue that aren’t simply editorials. There were two, a Houston Chronicle article and another from the Montgomery County News, which take an almost-identical slant describing the “book banners” and the anti-banners. The only story in the Google news archives at this writing which does not focus on the “anti-censorship” folks was this story from The Courier. Everything else seems to be a bunch of editorials comparing those who have a problem with these books to Nazis, communists, fascists, and book burners. Most of the coverage is distinctly one-sided.

What should be apparent to any liberal-minded person is that every group involved here is attempting to ram their values down other people’s throats. That’s right, all of them. But the worst by far seem to be the “anti book-banners,” piously claiming to be fighting the evil forces of intolerance. Good God, what a bunch of turds these people come across as. No respect for democracy, no respect for diversity, no tolerance of people who don’t share their narrow worldview and small-minded prejudices.

Of course, it would be easy to misjudge. The news coverage is so awful, the editorials so hysterically over the top, it’s hard to glean a lot of hard information or a good grasp on the arguments. But let’s get a few things straight:

Removing books from the shelves of a public library is not “banning” a book. Removal from a library or a school does not make it illegal to sell a book, own it, or read it. Nor will removing it from public library shelves be “one step closer” to having everyone herded into re-education camps run by Pat Robertson.

Some people are gay, or have gay kids or friends, and want to see more tolerance of gays. Fine. Most of us are with them on that–wholeheartedly. Are they willing, in return, to have more tolerance for people who might have religious or other objections, who worry about what their kids will be taught? Or are people who disagree with us to be considered axiomatically evil?

So far as the fact that some people don’t find the books objectionable: hey, isn’t that the whole point? If a large segment of a community finds something offensive, who are we to ram it down their throats just because we don’t? To tell them they cannot trust their children alone in the local public library? That they have no voice in how their tax dollars are spent?

There are multiple sides to an argument like this. In a liberal democracy, shouldn’t we, regardless of our personal feelings about any book, expect a public library to be careful about what selections it presents to the children of a community? If more than a tiny handful of people object to a certain book being freely available to children, then elected officials have a duty to take their views into consideration. Furthermore, either way, those people have a right to their opinion without being compared to Nazis, communists, or be accused of wanting to turn the whole country into a Fundamentalist Concentration Camp.

To try to deny those who pay for a public library the right to input on what it will carry is itself a form of censorship.

A nice compromise would probably be to propose a section for “controversial” books where only adults could request them. That would seem like a nice compromise. There doesn’t seem to be anybody proposing that, but then again, very little is being done by reporters and editorialists to get to the bottom of the story–they seem to prefer to sensationalize the conflict, hoping to turn it into a real-life re-enactment of Inherit The Wind.

There is something deeply intolerant and closed-minded about people who blast others simply because they have different values–different ideas about what is and is not appropriate to freely present to children on public property. Let’s not kid oureslves: this isn’t one step short of Fahrenheit 451. It’s not about whether the “tolerant” will win over the “intolerant,” about “the enlightened vs. the closed-minded.” It’s about whether a local county in Texas gets to decide democratically what books should be on the children’s shelves, and how such decisions should be made.

An earlier version of this article was first posted on Dean’s World on 29 September 2002. Feel free to drop by and tell Dean what you think, or to comment below.

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About Dean Esmay

  • I have to disagree. A public library isn’t just supposed to have what the taxpayers want, it is supposed to be a community resource.

    There are lots of people who want good sex ed books. So seeing what is available in the look inside feature at amazon for It’s Perfecty Normal which is for ages 9-12 and It’s So Amazing for younger kids, they look like excellent books. Much better than the books available when I was those ages.

    And everyone should be able to have access to them at the public library. Not everybody can afford to go out and buy the books some people in a town decide shouldn’t be in the library.

    The other thing is I’m sure far more people are now interested in checking them out than if the Republican group hadn’t tried to have them removed.

  • G. Bob

    I’m not sure I can agree with the idea that a public institution shouldn’t be based upon the wants and needs of the comunity. It strikes me as a somewhat arrogant attitude that a small group of people know what the community really needs rather than the community as a whole.

    Now please keep in mind that I think removing the books in question is foolishnes. If it was my community I would fight like hell to keep them in. The point for me is that it’s NOT my comunity and if a bunch of Texans don’t want children to see those books, then it’s no concern of mine.

    More importantly I think is the point that refusin to subsidise speech is NOT the same as censoring it. If the only source of information came from the state then obviously refusin to stock a particular book is a form of censorship. Since, however, there are multiple sources of information (such as the internet, book stores and private librarys in some fortunate communities) then a library refusing to carry a book is no more censorship than the NEA refusing to give money to an objectionable artist would be censorship.

    I think we cheapen the word “censorship” when we apply it to inappropriate circumstances.

  • There is a long tradition of libraries having a range of books, being a place where even books which might be unpopular with some people are available. That is why there are librarians who choose the books.

    And I do agree there is a difference when a group tries to remove books which are already in the library. I don’t care what you call it, for some people those books will only be available if they are in the library.

    And the Republicans group isn’t just targeting the library. This is from the Mainstream site:

    The RLC has supported the censorship of a replica of Michaelangelo’s David which sits atop the Portofino Shopping Center in Shenandoah. They are also boycotting Buca Di Beppo for displaying “pornography”. This consists of classic Italian artwork, some of which feature nudes as their subject.

    I’ve been in Buca Di Beppos. The walls are so packed with stuff you can barely notice the few very classic type nude drawings or photos of nude statues.

  • I just wanted to comment on the situation in Montgomery County. Currently, a small group of citizens called the Republican Leadership Council has been able to win audience with our commissioners and influence their decision making. Mainstream MC is not trying to force any opinions down others’ throats, we want these books and others available to those who choose to educate their children with them. They were sitting on the shelf in the ADULT section of the library until the RLC decided to make an issue because they didn’t specifically condemn homosexuality. Since then, they have succeeded in making a change to the selection process of books in the library as well as censoring several pieces of classic artwork in Montgomery County.
    Mainstream MC is composed of a membership which crosses all political lines and truly does represent the “mainstream” view in Montgomery County.
    The articles in the media have been rather vague and, in my opinion, sided more towards the RLC because they were making the most noise.

    The RLC is not endorsed by the Republican Party of Montgomery County and is a fringe, extreme right wing group. On the other hand, Mainstream MC embraces all member regardless of political affiliation and includes many prominent members of the community. We are not trying to push our ideals down the religious right’s throats, we are merely trying to ensure that we do not have their agenda pushed down ours.

  • They used to burn real books…
    in the 21st Century they will burn e-books

  • Eric Olsen

    Hey Jeffrey, Thanks for the Linkfilter link!

  • Harald

    Is a library a medium for the promotion of certain ideas of any majority or minority? Or is it a collection of information, meant to be as complete as possible and including as many views as possible? The answer should be obvious.

  • Libraries have always been impartial compendia of material, not parenting substitutes.

    In the middle ages, monastaries would have their collections carefully locked up, and to gain access to a book, a monk would have to show “need to know”. The books are there, but filtered to the readers based on their perceived ability to understand. The librarian understood the dangerous power of the word, but also that it should be there.

    When I take my child to a library, I expect to direct their attention to various books. I don’t expect the library to act as “Big Brother”. I don’t want them to. I would very much prefer that the same library have available books for me to read, that I would not necessarily leave my child read unsuperintended