Banning Books: The Hypocrisy of Criticizing Sarah Palin

Thursday, September 11, 2008

There is a famous story attributed to the late playwright, George Bernard Shaw. The gist of the tale is that Shaw approaches a woman at a party and offers her 10,000 pounds sterling – Shaw was Irish. – if she’ll sleep with him. She thinks about it and agrees, to which Shaw, sensing he may have overpaid, asks the question again, but this time for a price of only 10 pounds. Insulted, the woman rejects this second offer outright, saying something to the effect, “What do you take me for?” to which Shaw responds, “We’ve already established what you are, ma’am. Now we’re just haggling over the price.” With luck, you’ll understand the relevance of this story to the point I’m about to make.

Among the criticisms of Governor Palin is the assertion that she once asked a local librarian in the small town where she (Governor Palin) was Mayor how one might go about banning books that library had in its collection. No books were ever banned, nor did then Mayor Palin make any such request, but the question about procedure – according to an article in the September 15 edition of Time magazine and factcheck.org on September 8 – was asked. The question I have is whether we have the right to attack Governor Palin for asking it. Is it wrong to want to ban books from a public or school library?

If someone walks up to me and asks the unqualified question, “Are you in favor of banning books,” my response is a resounding, “Of course not.” (That’s my response, not necessarily yours.) As a matter of general principle, I might explain indignantly, “Are you kidding? I find all forms censorship to be abhorrent, an affront to the core concepts of a free society on which our democracy is based!” But then, I don’t really mean that. That’s just the college boy liberal in me talking.

Sure, I’m adamantly opposed to government or other censorship of our access to information. I believe emphatically in the essential importance of a free press, broadly defined to include other sources of information, including libraries and the Internet. But am I or are we, collectively, really opposed to all forms of censorship? Of course not. Censorship, whether self-imposed or by law, is everywhere in our lives.

We censor television, relegating more explicit, more adult materials to the later hours, allowing limited access cable television to be less inhibited in its choice of subject matter and presentation than the broadcast networks.

We provide ratings for movies to help parents censor what their children see.

We use software to block what our children can watch on TV and discover on the Internet.

In fact, protecting our children is one of the most profound and extensive uses of censorship in our society – unless, of course, you only meant the definition of “censorship” to pertain to adults, to our citizens who are old enough to vote.

Let’s be honest about it. Are there no books, the contents of which you would prefer were not readily accessible to your children at your public or their school library? Don’t try to think of specific titles. This isn’t a test. Think hypothetically about books with certain explicit sexual, violent, philosophical or other materials and messages you find objectionable and inappropriate for children of a certain age. (For that matter, do you really want adults having unfettered access to instructions for building and deploying bombs or chemical and biological weapons?) Get over your aversion to the general concept of “banning books.” Books are just a form of information, like other media including television, the Internet and movies. If it makes sense to censor one or more of these media, why not the others? Why not books?

When you think about it, we’re all like the woman in Shaw’s story when it comes to censorship. We all do it. The only thing we’re quibbling about is where we draw the line – and in that debate Sarah Palin’s opinion deserves the same respect as yours and mine.


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