Sunday, October 12, 2008

Once More into the Breach: An Inquiry into the Divisive Politics of Book-Banning

Once More into the Breach:

An Inquiry into the Divisive Politics of Book-Banning

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

During Banned Books Week this year we are perhaps both lucky and unlucky to have in Vice-Presidential hopeful Sarah Palin a public figure who allows us to delve into the methods, ideologies, and public faces of the book-banning mind, as well as into the varied public reactions to this always controversial issue. Much has been written and said about what Palin is alleged to have done to ban books in her hometown, and much of it has been based on misinformation, conjecture, and personal prejudice and hasn’t been a reflection of research or disinterested journalistic inquiry. Nearly as problematic is that hot-headed finger-pointing has taken the place of true reflection and hasn’t opened much room for serious inquiry into the very divisions that this issue has created, and is a reflection of.

In the interest of honesty and full journalistic disclosure, it must be stated that I take a nearly fundamentalist anti-book-banning stance and am entirely biased on this issue. But that doesn’t keep me from looking at facts or from trying to examine the deeper issues that have arisen as a result of the truths and untruths that have been disseminated about Palin’s past.

The story that’s been spread through the blogosphere is that in 1996, as mayor of her hometown, Wasilla, Alaska, Sarah Palin banned or tried to ban a list of ninety-one books from the Wasilla Public Library, including Gabriel García Màrquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Then, according to the story, when the town’s librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons (now Mary Ellen Baker), refused to cooperate, Palin either fired her or tried to have her fired.

Pro-Palin bloggers have fired back to discount the entire story, pointing out that one book on the circulating list, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, wasn’t published until 1998 and that the list is merely a cut-and paste of a generic list of banned books. Aside from pointing out the disparity of the Rowling date, almost all pro-Palin blogs provide no other evidence of the story’s falsehood, but this disparity is evidence enough to keep many people from looking into the matter further.

The inclusion of Rowling’s book does seem to discount the list itself—as does the concept of the notably unliterary former beauty queen even having heard of García Màrquez, Rousseau, or Aristophanes—but what about the rest of the story?

According to the September 4th, 2008 issue of the Anchorage Daily News and a December 1996 edition of Wasilli’s hometown newspaper, the Frontiersman, the facts are as follows:

Before being sworn in in 1996, mayor-elect Sarah Palin approached librarian Emmons with an inquiry about the prospect of banning books, which Emmons rejected out of hand. Emmons told the Frontiersman that after being sworn in, mayor Palin made the same inquiry two more times, with Emmons refusing to consider the possibility each time. Palin made one of these inquiries at an October 1996 City Council meeting, and according to one attendee, housewife Anne Kilkenny, “Sarah [Palin] said to Mary Ellen [Emmons], ‘What would your response be if I asked you to remove some books from the collection?’” Kilkenny went on to tell the Frontiersman, “I was shocked. Mary Ellen sat up straight and said something along the line of, ‘The books in the Wasilla Library collection were selected on the basis of national selection criteria for libraries of this size, and I would absolutely resist all efforts to ban books.’” No specific books were mentioned at the meeting.

The Frontiersman article said that after being questioned Palin called her inquiries, “rhetorical and simply part of a policy discussion.”

Then a few months later librarian Emmons received a letter from Palin telling her that she was going to be fired. The letter didn’t mention the issue of book-banning and simply cited Palin’s opinion that Emmons didn’t fully support her. Public support rose up behind Emmons, who had been a librarian in Wasilli for seven years, and finally Palin relented. In similar cases, four other public officials received what Palin called “test of loyalty” letters, including the police chief, the public works director, the finance director, and the overseer of the city museum. The latter resigned after Palin eliminated his job. Then in August of 1999, librarian Emmons resigned her position two months before Palin began her second term as mayor. No political pressure or hostility from Palin has been cited as the reason for her decision, and it would only be conjecture on my part to suggest this or any other cause.

According to the facts, no books were banned, and no list of any kind was proposed—the list circulating on the Internet is indeed a cut-and-paste job, but of a specific and accurate list of Books Banned at One Time or Another in the United States,” rather than a “generic” one. But according to a September 2nd, 2008 issue of Time magazine, many people in Wasilli believed that Palin had polarized the town by bringing “partisan politics and hot-button social issues like abortion and gun control into a mayoral race that had traditionally been contested like a friendly intramural contest among neighbors.” To combine these other issues with the issue of book-banning—and with the four “test of loyalty” letters other than the one sent to librarian Emmons—is perhaps beyond the purview of the About Classic Literature blog, but reflecting upon the polarized responses to the book-banning issue is not.

Having a figure like Palin suddenly thrust into the spotlight has become a hugely divisive issue, and perhaps this is Presidential hopeful John McCain’s strategy. In dealing with just the issue of book banning, we’ve seen how Palin’s entry onto the national stage has made both the left and the right lose sight of things like evidence and research and has led to simple knee-jerk reaction. As with so many issues, nuanced examination has given way to simple partisan faith, and like so much of Presidential politics and debate, shorthand soundbites have taken the place of the deeper truths that take more time and effort to unfold. It’s an unfortunate fact that quick, determined responses almost always impact people more than thoughtful inquiry. As a result, we in the literary and cultural community have to ask ourselves how we want to approach the issue without furthering the divide and further alienating ourselves from people who are resolutely on either side of the political aisle, who will all stop listening after hearing anything that counters their simple belief. Keeping the reading community as large and as diverse as possible is in all of our best interests, and in its attempt to keep an even view and to avoid partisanship, this article can provide no real answers to these problems. It can only provide the facts, as far as we can know them, and offer the About Classic Literature blog as a forum for thoughtful discussion.

—David Wiley

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