Palin and Book-Banning

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David Bernstein asks a very interesting question:

But let's say a library stocked a children's book called "Adam and Eve." The book, which has sold 50,000 copies nationwide, explains that The Lord intended men and women to be couples, and that people who have same-sex relationships are violating the laws of God and nature, and are risking eternal damnation. The librarian had received several requests for this book, and finds it an age-appropriate way of explaining the traditional Judeo-Christian-Islamic position on sexuality to children.

A progressive parent complains that her child read this book in the library, and now is convinced that gay people are bad. She asks that the library remove the book from the shelf. Is she a "bookbanner?" If the librarian had refused to stock the book to begin with, despite its strong sales, the requests, and a finding of educational value and age-appropriateness, is he a "bookbanner"?

There's certainly a potential consistency problem here, although I'd refrain from charging anyone with that unless they show clearly that they apply inconsistent standards to the different cases. I'm suspicious that many of the criticisms of Sarah Palin involve something like that with at least a noticeable number of people who are making them, although some of the defenses have the same feature.

There are several questions with this that I don't have a firm view on. Is it ok for a mayor to gauge how a head librarian will respond to parental challenges to books in a library? Sure. Is it ok for a mayor to request that certain books be removed from the libary? I'm less sure of that, but there doesn't seem to be any reason to think Palin did any such thing. Is it ok for librarians to exclude books on ideological grounds? They certainly do, and they do it all the time. You're not going to find children's books advocating for slavery or sex between adults and children, and the only reason is ideology against such things, a view that happens to be pretty universal. It's on controversial issues where you see difficulties arising. How you respond to the above case and how you respond to the parallel case of Heather Has Two Mommies might reveal your ideology, or it might show a consistent position that you hold regardless of ideology (depending on your meta-ideology, someting the latter possibility then reveals about you).

One quibble I've had with a lot of the discussion of this issue is that it's strange to call this banning at all. Banning a book seems to me to be a much broader act than just not having it on the shelf of a local library. Book-banning prevents stores from selling it or doesn't allow anyone to possess copies of it. I even worry about calling it censorship, which is government prevention of private citizens saying something. If the FCC tells TV networks they can't show certain kinds of content, that's censorship of a limited sort. It's TV censorship. If it prevents book publishers from publishing certain kinds of content, that's censorship. If it doesn't allow certain books to be present on a library shelf, that's not stopping anyone from saying what's in the book. It's stopping that book from being in a certain location. Is that censorship? It's not as clearly so, at least.

But the details are always important, and it's best to know what the details are before making judgments, a lesson the national media have amazingly still not learned (to judge by misleading and inaccurate stories that keep appearing despite all the criticism of their major errors over the last few weeks).As I've said before, it's much better to read contemporaneous accounts of events from over a decade ago, especially given the incredibly poor track record of the national media at accuracy with Sarah Palin's past. So here's the story in a local Wasilla paper from the time. It's clear to me that even at the time the librarian came away with a different understanding of what Palin was asking than Palin was saying she asked. I've been misunderstood often enough that I have no reason to disbelieve either one's account of what they thought was going on.

Also, in terms of the reason for her being fired, it doesn't seem likely that it had anything to do with that conversation, since Palin kept her on after hearing her answer to the hypothetical about removing books. She did ask for her resignation later but went back on it when Emmons was willing to support her plan to merge the library and museum, which suggests that Emmons had originally opposed that. It would make sense that Palin wanted her out for that reason instead.

Given the little information that is verifiable about this and the vast amount of evidence that people are lying about Palin or at least exaggerating events to fit the prevailing media narrative about here, I think Dale Carpenter (no fan of social conservatism) has it right:

Unless we get more information, or some further corroboration of the story told by one side or the other, here's my bet about what happened. In 1995, Palin was a young mother and religious conservative concerned about things like abortion and homosexuality, in addition to taxes, spending, and government waste. She was aware of the controversy over Daddy's Roommate and other books and discussed the controversy with others, probably expressing her own discomfort with children accessing the book. But she made no effort to "ban" any books. As a new mayor, Palin anticipated some parents' protest over the presence of some books and genuinely wanted to know how such protests would be dealt with. She probably would not have fallen on her First Amendment sword to save Daddy's Roommate or other books in the event protests began but she wasn't herself eager to start a controversy over it. When she got resistance from Emmons, and public criticism when she fired the popular librarian for other reasons, she backed off on any fleeting thought she might have given to removing any books from the library shelves.

If I'm roughly right about this, there are a couple of things we learn here about Palin. First, her instincts and personal views on social issues do indeed lie with religious conservatives. If it were costless to implement a socially conservative vision of the world, she would do it.

But the second the thing we learn about her is more important: she is not a crusader for a religious agenda in her capacity as a public official. She's a pragmatic reformer and a quick study who learned as a new mayor that there are some things worth fighting about and others that aren't. She has learned to prioritize. Cutting waste and consolidating departments in city and state government are worth ruffling feathers and making enemies (as she has); removing a book from the library is not. There is no evidence that Palin made any further effort as mayor to ban books, or even expressed further qualms about any books. If she was a book-banner back in 1996, she wasn't a proud one since she denied it at the time, and has long since given up such ideas.

This emphasis on small-government conservatism over social conservatism fits her record as governor, where she has mostly ignored the "family values" agenda. She opposes abortion, even in cases of rape, but hasn't pushed new anti-abortion legislation. She believes in creationism, but hasn't forced it on the state's public schools. And she may personally believe that many aspects of modern culture are corrosive and immoral, but there isn't even a hint of book-banning in her post-1996 public record.

Except for the bit about believing in creationism, for which there's little to no evidence one way or the other, that pretty much reflects what I've been thinking about this.

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