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.
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.