In March of 1919, noted socialist activist Kate Richard O’Hare, fresh from the Missouri State Penitentiary where she had been briefly imprisoned for interfering with military recruitment through her anti-war speech, arrived in Des Moines, Iowa where she was scheduled to speak at the public library auditorium.
There she was denied the right to present by city librarian Forrest Spaulding who claimed the auditorium had been booked under false pretenses, stating “I believe that I have the support of the large majority of citizens of Des Moines whose interests I am endeavoring to serve.”
I don’t doubt that he was correct about a majority supporting him, but I question his assertion that he was serving their best interests by denying space for a perspective many might have found unpalatable. And it turns out, he probably questioned it, too.
Because by 1940, his tune had changed dramatically. That’s when a local minister approached him about banning Hitler’s Mein Kampf from the library shelves, to which Spaulding responded, “If more people had read Mein Kampf, some of Hitler’s despotism might have been prevented.” It wasn’t the material that frightened him nearly as much as the “small minds” who wished to prevent others from engaging intellectually with controversial ideas.
He was also pretty outspoken against the frequent banning of Grapes of Wrath, for which I am grateful because it was one of the better books I was required to read in high school. And it was the fight over access to that book that led the American Library Association in 1939 to adopt the Library Bill of Rights, a slightly more generalized version of the one created specifically for the Des Moines Library by Forrest Spaulding in November of 1938.
The wording of that document has been tweaked a little through the years, but it’s still going strong and you should click here and read it, because it’s important. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Now, this is more or less an apolitical blog. As a writer who is not apolitical in my personal life, I do try very hard to keep it that way. I think there should be some places where we all can just have fun. But about this one issue I will shout loudly from every corner of every platform I ever have the opportunity to occupy.
Censorship is the death of freedom. And willfully ignoring or silencing the voices on the other side of an argument only leads to increased violence and instability. That’s not a Democrat or Republican thing. That’s a human thing.
Politically speaking, we’re still going through a rough patch here in the US. It’s been building for a long while and for a lot of reasons and it’s erupted in violence and destructive behavior more in the past few years than it had for quite a while. I think it’s safe to say that no matter our individual political bents, that’s kind of scary.
I remain optimistic that we’ll eventually weather it okay, not without fallout of course, but hopefully with the opportunity to move forward and be better. However, I am absolutely convinced that it will only get rougher if we silence one another.
And so, I ask you, please listen and consider, especially when those you tend to agree with are saying you shouldn’t. Turn on the channels you have a hard time watching, reach out to your friends who post things that make you want to block them, read the books and articles by authors you aren’t sure you trust, and look up the actual wording of the speeches of those politicians you wouldn’t mind seeing thrown out of office.
Don’t do this because you’ll likely find something to agree with them on. You might. You might not. Don’t do it because it will feel good. Because it probably won’t.
Do it because the humanity of the person on the other side of the argument matters as much as your own. Do it because they don’t really understand how you reached your conclusions, either, and maybe in the act of listening and considering, you both might see that your differing perspectives don’t actually make you all that different from one another.
It’s not too late to be part of the solution, even if we’ve failed in the past.
Forrest Spaulding once disallowed a speech by someone many of his library patrons would have found disagreeable. And by the standards he himself later laid out, that was the wrong thing to do. He then went on to speak out against censorship and was included on the American Library Association’s list of the hundred most important library leaders of the 20th century.
I know you may not think that such a list is a big deal, but I bet that like me, you know a few great librarians. So, consider that Mrs. G., the wonderful children’s librarian in my hometown when I was a kid, is not on that list. This is the woman who listened to me drone on and on about the books she’d probably read a hundred times because she knew that a reader becomes a thinker and a thinker becomes a person who can stand up and speak for the rights of all. That made a difference in my life and, I’m guessing, in a lot of lives. And she’s not even in the top 100.
And this is where I tell you that this morning, I very nearly decided to pull this post and replace it with a sillier, lighter re-run from the Practical Historian archives. Ah, the irony.
But next week will be sillier.
15 thoughts on “The Title of this Post has Been Censored”
Thanks for the link to the Library Bill of Rights. There are some places, such as public libraries, where censorship does not belong. (I’m old enough to have learned from a librarian how to use the card catalog.) Censorship by private companies looking out for their own interests? We have seen major, very large, companies, commit censorship in the last little time but I don’t know that there is anything to be done about it. Write to the CEO and send a copy of your post to educate them but unless it affects their pocketbook, they will do what they want. It is their form of expression also to exercise censorship on their own “property.” I agree with the Library Bill of Rights, and I think major companies who involve themselves in partisan politics and censorship are wrong and it’s their business but money is the key to it.
Yes. It does get tricky when private companies are engaged in censorship. The market can and should hold them accountable if they overstep a line for their customers. It remains to be seen whether that may happen in the most egregious of cases. In the meantime, individuals fight back by doing their best to access the information anyway, and hopefully questioning why they have to work so hard to find it.
I agree. It’s the questioning part that I see as important.
An excellent reflection, thanks Sarah – and the American rumble is being repeated all over the world (at least it is in my little corner). The problem I have with trying to be open and nice is that the naughty people take advantage of it and get away with it. As you possibly remember from when Hillary lost way back, I have strong feelings about some things. I haven’t changed – I’m just grateful I’ve never been on social media and live on a 1000 acre farm where I can talk as loud as I want! All the very best when trying to swim through such murky waters! And oh, I was a librarian for 7 years but not as nice and patient as your Mrs. G.
I bet you were a brilliant librarian! Yes, trouble continues to brew because each side of every argument attributes the action of the other to ignorance and evil. And when violence becomes involved, it becomes very difficult for a while to try to place it in any other context. The reality is there are those on both sides of every argument that will take advantage of the high emotions to shut the other side down in whatever ways they can, reasoning that the ends justify the means. Then everyone just hides behind the couch with their fingers in their ears singing as loudly as they can and all we’re left with is hurt and misunderstanding. Solutions are rarely found behind the couch.
Great post – and Spaulding’s remarks about ‘Mein Kampf’ are interesting! In 1943, Boston publisher Houghton & Mifflin issued an English edition of it, translated by Ralph Manheim and with foreword by Konrad Heiden. Yup, right in the middle of the war the enemy dictator’s insane rantings were available on sale in the US. Why? Because it was necessary to show just how deeply evil Hitler and his Nazi cronies really were. There was no question that it would be read for that purpose – nobody imagined anybody would be so stupid as to actually follow the deranged contents. And yet, after the war, that book was banned in Germany – and Europe – for precisely that reason. Which, of course, made it instantly an object of fascination. Ouch. (I can’t imagine anybody ever wanting to actually read this book, of course.)
The problem facing censors, I suppose, is that while some people look at matters rationally and with critical thought, others don’t. And if a book is banned, the critical thinkers object – because, after all, it’s going to be a discussion, not blind faith. But those who don’t think that way have been saved from being led down dark paths. Mostly. Here in NZ there are 1319 banned books, two thirds of which were banned before 1987 – once on, they never drop off even if they’re out of print or if social values change and render the reasons for banning archaic. That caused problems in 2011 when ‘Bloody Mama’ by Robert Thom turned up in a second hand shop. It had been banned in 1971 for its violent content and, because it was still on The List, was promptly confiscated by the Department of Internal Affairs.
Oh wow. That’s fascinating, and strange for me to even think about. The term “banned books” in the US generally refers to regional censorship by school districts or sometimes local libraries, though “banned” titles are far more likely to be featured in libraries than actually removed from shelves. I suppose that’s a feature of American culture. I kind of bristle at the notion of ever drawing a line, and would probably always assume that restricting controversial material would make it more attractive to those who are more susceptible to following dark paths. And then, too, I am always concerned about who gets to decide what’s suitable for public consumption and what isn’t. A world without censorship is risky, for sure, because not everyone is good at critical thought, but the suppression of information and ideas scares me much more.
I’m so glad you decided not to censor yourself and went through with posting this! I was surprised (and dismayed) to learn recently how easy it actually is to get a book banned from a library.
It’s a constant fight.
I was happily surprised to find another person who also thinks it’s worthwhile to try to find out why the “other side” believes what they believe and thinks the way they think. One step beyond that, and possibly towards reconciliation or at least possible compromise, would be if we could try to listen to each other with the goal of trying to understand the other’s feelings, which are probably really more likely their fears.
I must say, though, that I can only stomach watching or listening to the “other side’s” preferred media outlets for short bursts at a time before what I hear them harping on and in the tones they use before it starts to turn my stomach. I used to be able to take it for longer periods of time, again just in an attempt to “get them” a little (like in 2016), but it’s gotten so much farther afield and far-fetched now that I can only take a few minutes max, if that.
Maybe “real people” who don’t get paid to spew that vitriol might be a little easier to take but who knows when we’ll be able to get in the same room with anyone we don’t live with to have those conversations?
I hear you. I can’t take it for too long, either, so I try to do short bursts and when I do engage in good conversations with those whose viewpoint differs from mine I’m both energized that we had a thoughtful and respectful exchange (or at least ended up there eventually) and exhausted by the effort. But it’s worth the effort. We need to stop assigning motives and start listening to one another.
Oh, and I also forgot to mention that one of the people who surprised me with some of the stuff she’d posted on facebook around the recent election is my favorite librarian in the town where I used to live. She is definitely one I would like to try to understand, though I doubt I’ll ever have the opportunity even when the pandemic ends because I don’t live there anymore.
After a few go-arounds between us in comments, we both just agreed to disagree and moved on. She posts way more than I do. Most of it is about cats and Star Trek and English gardens. I enjoy the first and third but just had to take a 30 day break from her today because, not being a Trekkie, those references got to be a little too much for me today and I couldn’t handle them at this moment with all the other (non-pandemic) life stressors I’m trying to handle just now.
Well, librarians are people, too. They may safeguard the intellectual property of the world, but they have opinions, too. 😉
Pingback: Just the Worst: A Celebration of Banned Book Week – Author Sarah Angleton