The Nonpolitical Myth
I haven’t done a poll on it but I feel confident that one of the things political scientists hate most is when people describe things as “nonpolitical.” We, or at least I, hate it because it buys into the idea that political equals bad or undesirable. Also, it is almost always a lie. In studying book challenges, I run into this myth of the nonpolitical in the form of “libraries are politically neutral” regularly. If this was only intended to mean nonpartisan, that might be one thing, but libraries are intensely political. As public institutions, they are by definition political entities. When librarians defend their ability to provide a wide swath of material to the public, that is a political act and we shouldn’t be afraid of labeling it as such.
A recent story out of Rumford, Maine, initially triggered my concern. Libraries regularly put up book displays to highlight different time periods and ideas. For example, most libraries do some kind of banned book display at the end of September when Banned Book Week is recognized. In June, some libraries will put up LGBTQ Pride displays highlighting various offerings of the library. Both of these things, and often they are combined as queer content is often challenged and thus recognized in Banned Book Week, can trigger controversy. The library put up a banned book display (pictured below). Three local pastors sent a letter of complaint that hit on various common themes in book challenges but essentially amounted to the idea that such books should be hidden as often as possible (See page 1 and page 2). When the Interim Town Manager renewed the attack on the library, it fell back on claims that it was politically neutral. I get why and will talk about it below, but it simply isn’t true. Adopting a position that the library will be open to serve the entire public is a political position and we can see that by looking at the arguments of book challengers.
For an example of this logic, The Federalist, a conservative opinion site, recently engaged in a broad attack on the American Library Association and libraries in general. The theme tracks the arguments used to criticize books and programs in public libraries. They complain that a library hosting a pride event, a drag story time, or even purchasing books that depict queer people are engaged in illegitimate indoctrination. What challengers seek to do, then, is to use the state’s power through the library to remove those voices. In the words of the pastors’ letter in Rumford: “The library should not be promoting a far left political view that sees homosexuality as acceptable and to be promoted over and against a conservative and traditional view that sees homosexuality as wrong and to be avoided.” Owning and displaying a book is tantamount to endorsing that book. As queer voices have no place, these critics argue, in the public sphere, the library has a duty to exclude or otherwise hide them. Interestingly, we have no problem identifying this as a political argument.
If book challengers are political for attempting to purge unacceptable voices from our public institutions, it is also political to advocate for the inclusion of all voices in those institutions. It is this act of political inclusion that makes libraries valuable in society. When challengers seek to narrow the range of information presented to people, they seek to control their choices. People can’t be trusted to make moral decisions and thus the decision must be removed. Thus, drag story times are really a problem because some parents make the bad decision to bring their children to the events; the critics want to control those parents by denying the option. When those of us for advocate for the liberty of the individual to choose the books they read or the programs they attend, we do so based on a political belief the individual is the best person to decide what to consume. Or as the Freedom to Read Statement declares:
We state these propositions neither lightly nor as easy generalizations. We here stake out a lofty claim for the value of the written word. We do so because we believe that it is possessed of enormous variety and usefulness, worthy of cherishing and keeping free. We realize that the application of these propositions may mean the dissemination of ideas and manners of expression that are repugnant to many persons. We do not state these propositions in the comfortable belief that what people read is unimportant. We believe rather that what people read is deeply important; that ideas can be dangerous; but that the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. Freedom itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours.
Advocacy for the freedom to read is a political choice and one we should celebrate. In a war between oppression and empowerment, we should happily side with empowerment of the individual to engage with ideas as a paramount political value. That being said, I understand the tactical decision to invoke the nonpolitical myth. It’s easy for me, a tenured college professor with strong protections for my academic freedom, to opine about the value of political advocacy. Librarians who may lack those protections, or who’s institutions face a tough set of budget battles, adopt a reasonable tactic of holding themselves out as political neutral in the fact of a political attack from critics bent on censorship. That is, more often than not, a winning tactic and I can’t fault for adopting winning strategies. But when we talk about such battles more broadly and outside of such particular attacks, we should acknowledge that where some want public institutions to reflect only a small segment of the population, often a heteronormative conservative Christian segment, libraries stand behind the political choice to include as many voices of the community as they can hold. Then the marketplace of ideas will control because, as James LaRue once wrote, “in the modern library, books from any viewpoint have to earn their place on the shelf. Either they find readers, or they make way for newer materials.” In a society that believes in the political ideal of freedom, the choice must be that of the individual.