Monday, September 29, 2008

Banned Books Week: A Celebration of Freedom?

Today the American Library Association begins its 26th annual celebration of Banned Books Week, an event designed to keep before our eyes the specters of Fahrenheit 451 and Nazis and other totalitarian thugs setting fire to mountains of forbidden books, reminding us to be ever on the lookout for the forces of darkness and tyranny that set out to stifle human thought by regulating what we read.

That, at any rate, is the stated purpose of Banned Books Week. But is that really all there is to it? A review of the ALA's Banned Books Week materials on the Internet (apparently under renovation, with many non-operative links) raises a few questions.

1. Is the mere regulation of library materials, without more, contrary to liberty, where citizens remain free to purchase the materials libraries may not carry? Most libraries are public entities, staffed by government employees and funded by the taxpayers. Must taxpayers support with their dollars access to materials that violate the ideals they cherish? Must they acquiesce in the respectability that library access confers on that which is by nature not respectable? Are not the patrons of scurrilous materials free to purchase them at privately-owned bookstores and newsstands, or even off the Internet?

2. What is the nature of the "censorship" the American Library Association dreads and fears? The ALA's website includes a set of guidelines for librarians who face "challenges" to library materials. "Challenges" -- which the ALA apparently finds undesirable -- include the following (taken directly from the ALA' s website):
  • Expression of Concern. An inquiry that has judgmental overtones.
  • Oral Complaint. An oral challenge to the presence and/or appropriateness of the material in question.
  • Written Complaint. A formal, written complaint filed with the institution (library, school, etc.), challenging the presence and/or appropriateness of specific material.
  • Public Attack. A publicly disseminated statement challenging the value of the material, presented to the media and/or others outside the institutional organization in order to gain public support for further action.
  • Censorship. A change in the access status of material, based on the content of the work and made by a governing authority or its representatives. Such changes include exclusion, restriction, removal, or age/grade level changes.
As the ALA clearly concedes above, "censorship" necessarily entails government action against a work based on its content. But the ALA also lumps in with censorship citizen complaints of various types. Do citizen complaints against library smut threaten the survival of the First Amendment? What about the First Amendment rights of those who do not want their tax dollars underwriting sexually explicit, anti-Christian or violent material?

3. In surveying the ALA's list of "Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000," it is clear that some of these books are accepted as literary classics (by the way: has anybody seriously questioned whether The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are, at this late date and after numerous film and television adaptations, really on the "censorship" hit list?). But many of them are aimed at children or "young adults" (i.e., children). Now parents have not only the right but the duty to regulate their children's reading. Are they not entitled to be alarmed when public institutions undermine their parental efforts by providing their children with easy access, behind their backs, to literature that is forbidden to them at home? Are concerned parents in fact the primary source of the "challenges" the ALA finds so ominous? Is the ALA being intellectually honest in holding that freedom includes the "freedom" of little kids to look at inappropriate materials against the wishes of their parents?

In its alleged quest to secure the blessings of liberty, the American Library Association ignores and indeed opposes the most obvious safeguard on liberty: the cultivation of virtue. In a letter to a cousin, John Adams wrote:
Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People in a greater Measure than they have it now, They may change their Rulers and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty. They will only exchange Tyrants and Tyrannies.
In a letter to his wife, Adams wrote:
The furnace of affliction produces refinement in states as well as individuals. And the new Governments we are assuming in every part will require a purification from our vices, and an augmentation of our virtues, or they will be no blessings. The people will have unbounded power, and the people are extremely addicted to corruption and venality, as well as the great.
Virtue is tough to cultivate while you're busy shoveling dirt into your heart. As long as freedom means nothing more than the removal of obstacles to societal corruption, the genuine article will remain in peril. So maybe it's about time the American Library Association quit worrying about parental objections to Heather Has Two Mommies, and started exercising its hitherto unused freedom to read more of the Founding Fathers. (And while they're at it, maybe that most scurrilous of reading materials, the New Testament.)

1 comment:

  1. Of course, ALA makes no mention of the connection between the book burning, Nazis, Alfred Kinsey, and what was really the target of destruction that night in Germany (per nut-jobs through the ages). Expect that if such an event ever happens here, it will be at the Indiana University campus.