Trust Your Librarians
The national book purge fever came late to the self-appointed Protectorate of Their and Your Children in St. Tammany Parish, but they have been making up for lost time.
The American Library Association (ALA) reports that the first indication of a surge of complaints about books dealing with race theory, honest interpretations of history, and especially, books and graphic novels addressing LGBTQ+ issues began in 2021 when the number of unique titles challenged increased to 1858 from the 223 challenged in 2020, and 2022 saw another increase up to 2571.
Until June of last year, however, the St. Tammany Parish Library had few challenges. That was when three branches across the parish chose to assemble small displays highlighting Gay Pride Month, along some of its inventory on that subject. The move drew a good crowd of supporters at the library board meeting later in July; the library received 45 letters in support, and 15 complaints. Three formal challenges were made dismissed, none of which were appealed. Then they came for the books.
The form the library offers for patrons and other citizens of the parish to file a formal complaint is called a Statement of Concern, and in the following months, the previous trickle of objections became a tsunami of an obvious copy and paste hit list of library titles that were called pornography, obscenity, and pedophilia—all from a handful of citizens, and most of them, by far, from one person. August 2022—3 titles; September—3 titles; October—1; November—56 titles; and in December, Santa’s little helpers managed to gift us with 129 newly challenged books, e-books, and graphic novels, all in the spirit of the season. In her neurotic urgency to file even more challenges, St. Tammany’s leading “ban-she”, included one or two titles that the library does not even own.
Library rules required challenged books to be removed from the shelves and held behind the circulation desk, from where they may be checked out (but not browsed.) Library rules then call for a decision to be made on any book under challenge reviewed by a panel of library employees within 45 days. A four-and-a-half hour meeting of the Library Board of Control (LBOC) I attended in March cleared a total of five titles to go back into circulation. Faced with another 150 titles yet to be addressed, a motion was made and approved to add a second 120-day extension to the time allotted for decisions. At the rate of 5 or so titles in each of the monthly meetings, it could be years for this litigation to play out (assuming there is not another mass copy and paste campaign.) ALA data shows that 90% of all challenged books were part of attempts to ban multiple titles. Lists are distributed by a network of local and national organizations. (One of which is Moms for Liberty, a recent newcomer to the network, and plenty aggressive.) PEN America, a literary and free expression advocacy group, estimates about 50 different organizations have offered lists of likely targets for removal.“Some of the groups espouse Christian nationalist political views, while many have mission statements oriented toward reforming public schools, in some cases to offer more religious education.”
There are concepts concerning social affairs of human interaction that have contradictions, or paradoxes, or, as philosopher Hegel called them, “seeds of their own destruction” embedded within them. Democracy, for example, that allows the governed to choose its leaders can, under unique circumstances, be taken away by the very leader the people have chosen. Capitalism, as an economic system, carries the seeds of its own destruction, claimed Marx, since the system produces an alienated working class (proletariat) which eventually rises up in revolt and replaces it with the more worker-friendly socialism. Philosopher Karl Popper, is perhaps best known for his contribution to the philosophy of science with his falsification principle, which proposed a solution to the world demarcation problem—or what separates science from pseudoscience. But he was also a contributor in the political and social realm. Buried deep in the footnotes of his magnum opus The Open Society and Its Enemies (1950), he discusses the paradox of tolerance, where unlimited tolerance “must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.” This does not mean that it is okay to suppress intolerant views altogether “as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check.”
I see a parallel in this theory with the situation the St. Tammany Parish Library has gotten into. With a very tolerant and liberal policy that takes seriously all concerns and complaints about material on its shelves and requires any material under formal complaint to be removed from the shelf and placed in a restricted area while subjecting them to tedious review. This seems to be an overly-cautious CYA regulation. The strain of the extra workload this can put on library staff is potentially enormous, and takes them away from other services, not to mention the spirit of the First Amendment and due process clauses. To its credit, the library board just recently ruled that any title which had been challenged and subsequently reinstated to its proper place could not be challenged again for five years but the book ban movement is focused on abusing the liberal policy to consider all complaints in hopes it is at least one of the weak spots, or seeds of destruction contained within the library’s own rules.
Forbearance: patient self control; restraint and tolerance, or “the act of restraining from exercising a legal right,” might be considered tolerance’s first cousin, and it is a principle that is completely lost on the nouveau puritanical ideology of Christian nationalists, and runs counter to their slash-and-burn tactics. They recognize any book dealing with sex or gender identity issues is both a potential “soft target” at libraries as well as a nuclear button issue for many conservative Christians. And books are just a means in which to sow disorder into the operation of libraries, which leads to doubts about the competence and ulterior motives of its administrators and regulating boards. A low-confidence level of the general public is the launching pad for pressuring voters and parish councils to clean house at libraries and elect leaders that are sympathetic with their child rescue crusade sham. One of the leaders of the ban movement just announced his candidacy for parish council for his district. The public funding of the library will also be a prime target in 2024 when public approval of the millage renewal will be on the ballot.
In light of developments like these, Popper continues with what he sees as the only solution to save toleration, a founding principle of an open, diverse, and pluralistic society from oblivion:
But we should claim the right to suppress them…it may turn out they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument…we should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal.
Marty Bankson, Ed.
May 10, 2023