My thoughts on Banned Books Week (circa 2009)

Here is an essay I wrote for a college composition class in 2009.  I still feel this way.

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They are part of America: Why library censorship should be prevented.

By Daniel Max, 03/19/2009

Whether it is reading about history, checking out a classic by Mark Twain, or doing research for a school assignment, the ability to go into a building that is owned by the public and educate or entertain ourselves is an amazing privilege.  It is also a privilege that, due to politics or poverty, is unavailable to a majority of the world’s population.  Libraries represent one of the core values of this country: the free exchange of information and ideas and the free access to those ideas. However, libraries are one of the most frequent targets of censorship in this country.

Throughout much of the Twentieth Century there was a strong anti-Communist sentiment in this country.  This attitude led to Congressional hearings, Hollywood blacklists, convictions, deportations, and even executions of suspected, and actual, Communists.  Many citizens as well as members of the government believed the best way to fight the spread of Communism, as well as other ideas that they believed were un-American, was to silence those who had or were even suspected of having such views.  One way this was done was by removing books from libraries.  While many in the in the American public as well as United States Government believed that this was a good idea, there was at least one man who disagreed.  That man was President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

President Eisenhower, a World War II war hero, was President during the height of the Cold War.  However, President Eisenhower believed that no matter how much he disagreed with them, the thoughts and words of Communists should not be hidden from the public but should be available for anyone to read.  “Don’t join the book burners,” he said during a commencement speech at Dartmouth College in June, 1953, “Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend our own ideas of decency. That should be the only censorship” (Remarks).

It was not that President Eisenhower had any love for communism, but he believed that Communism could not be defeated unless people knew what Communists believe and why Communism attracts people. Eisenhower seemed to believe that this would not be possible unless there were books available for people to read.  If a man who as a Army General and President lead this country against Hitler, Stalin, and Khrushchev spoke so strongly against censorship, even censorship of ideologies which he opposed, and so strongly in favor of libraries, how can anyone defend limiting access to information and ideas through public library censorship.

In an Opposing Viewpoints article defending censorship, the unnamed author makes the argument that “people of color” should not have to tolerate a library funded by their tax money having “Klu-Klux-Klan literature” or other racist material on its shelves (Censorship).  The problem with using racism as a reason for banning books from a library is that those making such an argument tend to use extreme examples while overlooking less obvious examples of potentially racist themes.

In the third paragraph of Article 1, Section 2 of the United States Constitution, the guidelines for the national census is laid down as a basis for how to determine the number of members in the House of Representatives as well as taxes.  It says that taxes and representatives should be determined for each state according to its population which was to be determined by “adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three–fifths of all other persons.”  The term “three–fifths of all other persons” was a reference to African slaves and their descendants.  How can referring to someone as less than a whole person not be considered racist? Also just as clear, the explicit exclusion of “Indians” also implies that the original inhabitants of this continent were not considered equal.  While there may be many people crying for libraries to ban obvious and blatant examples of racist literature, I doubt that many of these same people would want the U.S. Constitution removed from public places.

Banning one and accepting the other creates a double standard.  Just because the Constitution was written when ideas or words that degraded non-whites were still acceptable is not valid excuse to exclude it from being considered a racist document unless the standard is universally applied to anything written when such language was more acceptable.  This is apparently not the case because one of the most frequently banned books due to language and racial slurs is Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Banned).  If racist themes were the reasoning behind banning Twain’s book, then all other written works with similar ideas regardless of when they were written should also be banned.

In the same article, the author also made the argument that anti-Semitic material should be banned because it may offend Jews.  However, one of the largest collections of anti-Jewish material in this country can be found at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.  What President Eisenhower said about Communism applies here as well. Knowing the beliefs held by those responsible for the Holocaust is essential to understanding how and why it happened as well as preventing it from happening again.  According to the museum’s website, its mission is to stimulate the public to “confront hatred, prevent genocide, promote human dignity, and strengthen democracy” (Museum). This mission reflects the motto of similar organizations, as well as Holocaust survivors, throughout the world: “Never forget.”  In giving the public access to the words and ideas of those who were responsible, the museum gives its visitors first hand information and not just opinions. If  making sure the public has access to anti-Semitic writing is so important to those who have been most directly hurt by it, it would seem that removing such writing from libraries could actually do more harm than good.

Another argument in the article is libraries have limited space and limited budgets, so librarians themselves are engaging in censorship when they make decisions on what books to buy.  This argument relies on a flawed understanding of what censorship is.  Deciding what to buy is not a form of censorship.  Stores also have limited budgets and limited space in which to stock merchandise and if a store decides to stock more Pepsi than Faygo in their soft drink isle, this is not censorship.  Censorship is removing or blocking access to what was previously available. If a book was never on a library’s shelf, it could not be removed and cannot be censored.

The public library is just that, public.  That means that libraries should be open to everyone, and they are, and should reflect the diversity of our society, which they do. Still, people use the argument that since libraries are funded with tax dollars, they should not contain anything that offends those that fund them.  The problem with such thinking is who gets to decide what is offensive?  Does the evangelical Christian get to decide that a library should not have a copy of The Book of Mormon because they believe Mormonism is a cult? Should atheists be able to force every copy of the Bible, Torah, or Koran off the library shelves because they are religious texts?  If libraries had to remove anything that anyone found offensive, what would be left?

Imagine the ramifications for research if everything that included anything that anyone found offensive was removed libraries. Encyclopedias would have to be removed because they have factual information on human reproduction, as well as other topics, which some would find inappropriate for children. Electronic databases would have to be blocked as soon as an article with a view or an idea that someone deemed offensive was found on them.  If a kid doing research for a paper in his seventh-grade social studies class about genocide during World War II or in Africa today was going through an encyclopedia or electronic database, they would discover information that would most likely be graphic and detailed.  However, what is disturbing about this is not that the kid has access to it, but that it is reality.

Reality is not always pretty.  If this was a perfect world, then there would not be anything that would offend anyone.  But this is not a perfect world.  Everyone is different, people do not always get along, and not everyone sees things the same way.  The best way for people in a pluralistic society such as ours to get along with those who are different is to understand why they are different.  Not everyone can afford access to a wide variety of information on their own.  But by allowing everyone free access to a wide array of viewpoints and ideas from throughout history, our public libraries enable people to become informed if they choose to, and becoming informed can lead to open and changed minds.  This becomes impossible when information is restricted.

President Eisenhower fought the Nazis in Europe and saw the escalation of the Cold War.  He believed Communism was a dangerous and evil force in the world and was committed to combating it, just as he was committed to ending the tyranny of the Nazis.  However, he understood that the way to fight such forces was not by copying the methods they used, such as routinely banning or burning books and violently suppressing opposing or minority viewpoints, but by doing the opposite.  While many in this country were saying that those who had views they considered un-American should have no rights, President Eisenhower defended the right for them to have those views.  “They are part of America,” he said, “And even if they think ideas that are contrary to ours, their right to say them, their right to record them, and their right to have them at places where they are accessible to others is unquestioned, or it isn’t America” (Remarks).

Works Cited

“Books Banned on Social Grounds.” Earl Gregg Swem Lib. 27 Sep. 2005. Coll. of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA.  4 Mar. 2009. < http://swem.wm.edu/exhibits/banned-books/banned-social.pdf&gt;.

Eisenhower, Dwight D. “Remarks at the Dartmouth College Commencement Exercises.” 1953. The American Presidency Project. 2008. U. of California at Santa Barbara. 4 Mar 2009 <http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/print.php?pid=9606&gt;

“Library Censorship Is Justified.” Opposing Viewpoints Digests: Censorship. Ed. Bradley Steffens. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2001. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Gale. Jackson District Lib. 4 Mar. 2009 <http://find.galegroup.com/ovrc/infomark.do?&contentSet=GSRC&type=retrieve&tabID=T010&prodId=OVRC&docId=EJ3010090220&source=gale&srcprod=OVRC&userGroupName=lom_jacksondl&version=1.0&gt;.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 4 Mar 2009. <http://www.ushmm.org/&gt;

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