Finding Censorship Where There’s Plenty, Actually

Banned Books Week officially kicked off this past Saturday. What did you read this past weekend?

Friday saw an editorial in the Wall Street Journal’s online edition that simply misses the point (or perhaps does so intentionally.) Let’s take a look, shall we?

Mr. Mitchell Muncy starts out with a wee bit of condescension in his tone:

‘To you zealots and bigots and false patriots who live in fear of discourse. You screamers and banners and burners. . . .” These are the opening lines of the official Manifesto of Banned Books Week, which starts tomorrow. This annual “national celebration of the freedom to read” is led by the American Library Association (ALA) and co-sponsored by a number of professional associations and advocacy groups. Events and displays at “hundreds” of libraries and bookstores will “draw attention to the problem of censorship” in the U.S.

See all those quotation marks? I love the one around “‘hundreds'” — as though there aren’t really hundreds of libraries and bookstores participating (hint: yes there are.)

He goes on to say that “[a]s the tone of the Manifesto suggests, the sponsors are more interested in confrontation than celebration.” Well, yes and no. The sponsors are confronting the challenges to free speech, absolutely, but in many cases they’re also celebrating the very fact that they’re allowed to sell those books under free speech laws in the first place. They’re celebrating the freedom to read and write and publish, even though there are people out there who would happily yank that away.

Next, we start with the definitions:

In the common-law tradition, censorship refers specifically to the government’s prior restraint on publication. None of the sponsors claim this has happened; the acts they have in mind are perpetrated by private citizens.

Ah ha! Two can play at that game, Mr. Muncy!



1. an official who examines books, plays, news reports, motion pictures, radio and television programs, letters, cablegrams, etc., for the purpose of suppressing parts deemed objectionable on moral, political, military, or other grounds.
2. any person who supervises the manners or morality of others.
3. an adverse critic; faultfinder.
4. (in the ancient Roman republic) either of two officials who kept the register or census of the citizens, awarded public contracts, and supervised manners and morals.
5. (in early Freudian dream theory) the force that represses ideas, impulses, and feelings, and prevents them from entering consciousness in their original, undisguised forms.
–verb (used with object)
6. to examine and act upon as a censor.
7. to delete (a word or passage of text) in one’s capacity as a censor.

I bolded numbers two and seven for you, there, in case you got all hung up on the Freudian thing.

So, sure, in Muncy’s “common-law tradition” definition, there’s a disconnect, but let’s get this straight: Mr. Muncy is deliberately sending you off in the wrong direction. Reread definitions two and six. That’s what Banned Books Week is about.

Isn’t language awesome? Let’s play some more! Muncy again:

The problem of loose language aside, we can still ask whether books are banned in this country. The obvious answer is no, if banned means something like “made dangerous or difficult for the average person to obtain.”

Right here? This very line? This is where Mr. Muncy waves a stick at you and throws it in the complete opposite direction of what Banned Books Week is about, hoping you’ll chase after it like a good doggie. Again, he’s trying to define the words, intentionally narrowing the definition to one where what’s really going on stops fitting. Shall we talk about what banning really means?

To! (It’s kind of like the new “to the Batcave!”)


–verb (used with object)
1. to prohibit, forbid, or bar; interdict: to ban nuclear weapons; The dictator banned all newspapers and books that criticized his regime.
2. Archaic.
a. to pronounce an ecclesiastical curse upon.
b. to curse; execrate.
3. the act of prohibiting by law; interdiction.
4. informal denunciation or prohibition, as by public opinion: society’s ban on racial discrimination.
5. Law.
a. a proclamation.
b. a public condemnation.
6. Ecclesiastical. a formal condemnation; excommunication.
7. a malediction; curse.

Wheee, more bolding! Also, I notice that Mr. Muncy declined to go right to the source, the Banned Books week website, and share the actual things Banned Books Week is confronting. Here, I’ll help:

Banned Books Week is the only national celebration of the freedom to read. It was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than a thousand books have been challenged since 1982. The challenges have occurred in every state and in hundreds of communities. People challenge books that they say are too sexual or too violent. They object to profanity and slang, and protest against offensive portrayals of racial or religious groups–or positive portrayals of homosexuals. Their targets range from books that explore the latest problems to classic and beloved works of American literature.

Challenging books is, essentially, going to a school board or a library or wherever and saying “I don’t want you to carry this book. I don’t want you to make it available.” Often with the added bonus of “Remove it for the children!”

This happens. In this country.

No, it’s not Fahrenheit 451. Books haven’t been banned on a national level by the government. That doesn’t make them any less banned in the areas where it’s happened. In some places, the school library is the only exposure children have to books. Maybe there isn’t a bookstore nearby for miles and miles. Maybe their families simply can’t afford the luxury of buying books (did you realize, Mr. Muncy, that book buying is often a luxury? Not everyone has the disposable income available to enter a bookstore and come home with an armload of books. For some families it’s a decision between eating and reading. That’s why libraries are so damned wonderful and essential — they’re free.)

Oh, wait. You don’t realize that at all:

If a book isn’t available at one library or bookstore, it’s certainly available at another. Not even the most committed civil libertarian demands that every book be immediately available everywhere on request—though in the age of Amazon that’s nearly the case.

Because every child in America can just hop into a car and go to the next closest library or bookstore, right?

Next of course, Muncy points out how flawed the week’s theme is because — le gasp! — the website discusses banned and challenged books. “By this definition,” he says, “censorship includes not only the actual removal of books, but complaints about books as well.”

Yes, yes it does. Because, you see, the people challenging the books are making the attempt to ban them. They are, by definition #2 of the word, trying to supervise the manners and morality of others, whether or not their cases succeed.

And it’s clear why complaints must be counted. In only 10% of the 186 cases on the map was a book permanently removed from a library. (If we add books removed from individual classrooms, we reach 16%.)

10% is unacceptable. 16% is unacceptable. The people challenging and banning and removing these books are acting as censors. This is the whole point.

If the criterion of book banning is that a book be banned—anywhere—the incidence of censorship drops about 90%.

Again, let’s watch Muncy redefine the criteria to fit his argument. The criterion of book banning, since he’s refusing to state it, includes the attempt to ban as well as the actual banning because it’s important to know that challenges are being issued. It’s important to know that some people are trying to police the rights of others to read as they please. It’s important to know that a handful of parents in one town can remove access to books not just for their own children, but for every child who goes to that library.

Further down, Muncy gives us half a story:

One of the “frequently asked questions” on the ALA’s Web site is: “Can’t parents tell the librarian what material they don’t think children should have?” The Manifesto’s answer is clearly “no.”

Really? That’s on the ALA’s FAQ? Why didn’t Muncy provide the ALA’s answer to that question?

Oh, wait. He didn’t provide it because it’s not there at all.

So, now he’s willing to make things up to support his claims. Mr. Muncy’s a liar. Good to know. (If, by chance, that question is there and I missed it, please let me know. I’ll be happy to edit this post with the ALA’s response.)

The ALA repeatedly emphasizes that public and school libraries are “government bodies.” Is Banned Books Week a celebration of free speech, or is it a way for government employees to bully ordinary citizens by stigmatizing those who complain (“bigots,” “false patriots,” “screamers,” “burners”)? They clearly hope future challenges simply won’t be brought. Does that make Banned Books Week an attempt at prior restraint on speech by the government—an act of censorship?

Ah yes. Fear-speech to make your local librarian into a scary bully. Seriously?

The librarians aren’t the bullies here. The bullies are the ones trying to take the choice away from the readers.

Let’s talk a little about this Manifesto that has Mr. Muncy so offended, shall we? It comes from a poem, by author Ellen Hopkins. Ms. Hopkins wrote books based on her dauther’s real experience with drugs, and found that one of her book signings had been the books had been yanked from the local library’s shelves for reasons still unknown. Go ahead and read her livejournal entry about it.

Now, here’s the poem in its entirety, recited by Ms. Hopkins:

The last stanza is one Mr. Muncy doesn’t seem to want to quote. So I’ll do it for him:

Torch every book.
Burn every page.
Char every word to ash.
Ideas are incombustible.
And therein lies your real fear.

Muncy chooses to end with a quote from Benjamin Franklin, suggesting that

Franklin, the founder of American libraries, understood that threats to freedom are much more likely to come from those in power who won’t hear criticism than from private citizens who want a hearing.

You can play this game with the Bible or the Founding Fathers. For every quote you can come up with saying they mean one thing, I can come up with another saying they meant something else. I see your Ben Franklin, Mr. Muncy, and raise you… Ben Franklin (from the ALA website, natch):

“Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”

“Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such Thing as publick Liberty, without Freedom of Speech.”

“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”—Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759

And I’ll even throw in a little Thomas Jefferson:

I am really mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, a fact like this [i.e., the purchase of an apparent geological or astronomical work] can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too, as an offense against religion; that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate. Is this then our freedom of religion? and are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy? And who is thus to dogmatize religious opinions for our citizens? Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched? Is a priest to be our inquisitor, or shall a layman, simple as ourselves, set up his reason as the rule for what we are to read, and what we must believe? It is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not, and blasphemy against religion to suppose it cannot stand the test of truth and reason. If [this] book be false in its facts, disprove them; if false in its reasoning, refute it. But, for God’s sake, let us freely hear both sides, if we choose.”—Thomas Jefferson to N. G. Dufief, 1814. ME 14:127

I’ll have more to say on the idea of challenging books this week, though you can surf on over to Just One Anna for an excellent post that very eloquently points out that when you ban a book, you’re not just keeping your own children from reading it, you’re keeping everyone else’s children from reading it, too.

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4 Responses to Finding Censorship Where There’s Plenty, Actually

  1. Hill says:

    Hey, why did you not send this to the Wall Street Journal. It’s fantastic.

  2. falconesse says:

    Thankya. Mostly because I’d want to reword it to sound less ranty and more professional before sending it in to them (I’d probably also have to pare it down quite a bit and pick and choose which points to focus on, which to cut out.).

    I’m fully aware that I waxed sarcastic more than a few times here, and starting out that way on the WSJ’s comments section would have the unfortunate effect of making me look like Ranty McRanterson and cause those who agree with Muncy to see my tone rather than my actual argument.

    Plus, now that I look, there’s some excellent commentary already there by readers that make a lot of the same points, and many of them are librarians. Unfortunately, their very valid, logical comments are being met with some pretty hard-headed responses.

    I don’t mind being snarky here on my own blog, but that’s because I know that all, what, ten of you? reading this grok my style. Arguing on the internets with people I don’t know requires a more formal tone or it becomes a lot of shouting and no listening.

    In the unlikely event that someone happens along here and want to offer a dissenting opinion and have an honest-to-god discussion, it’s also much easier to keep it civil in this space than it is on the WSJ site. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that Mr. Muncy started off in that editorial wanting an honest discussion, not with all the facts he fudged or just plain left out altogether, so I’m unconvinced that the commentary on that article can start from the same place.

    That, and I’d have to lose the “To the Batcave!” line, and that makes me a sad panda. :(

    I am mulling over rephrasing it and submitting it as a letter to the editor rather than just slapping a cleaned up version of it in the comments section. I figure it’d have about the same chance of being seen that way (which is still slim-to-none, but still.)

  3. Wonderful post! The best thing I’ve seen recently is a whole section entitled ‘Banned Books’ at the local owned bookstore in downtown, Asheville, NC.

  4. Glossaria says:

    A bit belated in my response, I know, but I’ve been slacking on my blogfeeds lately… fantastic post, and a very good dissection of his “logic” (see, I can use sarcastic quotation marks, too!).

    It took me a bit of digging, but I *did* find the FAQ he referred to on ALA’s site (hey, I’m a librarian, digging is what I do). It’s on the Coping with Challenges page, and in case the ALA rearranges their site again and the link doesn’t work, here’s the answer, complete (and of course, it’s not quite as simple as “yes” or “no”):

    Q. Can’t parents tell the librarian what material they don’t think children should have?

    A. Decisions about what materials are suitable for particular children should be made by the people who know them best—their parents or guardians.

    Children mature at different rates. They have different backgrounds and interests. And they have different reading levels and abilities. For instance, a video that one 10-year-old likes may not interest another. Or parents may feel a particular library book is inappropriate for their daughter, while the same book may be a favorite of her classmate’s family. These factors make it impossible for librarians to set any criteria for restricting use based on age alone. To do so would keep others who want and need materials from having access to them.

    Like adults, children and teenagers have the right to seek and receive the information that they choose. It is the right and responsibility of parents to guide their own family’s library use while allowing other parents to do the same.

    Librarians are not authorized to act as parents. But they are happy to provide suggestions and guidance to parents and youngsters at any time.

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