Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Palin and book banning

Today I ran across an intriguing story from the New York Times. Mostly it's about the political strategy presumptive Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin used when she ran for mayor of Wasilla, Alaska back in 1996. She turned the tables in the election by sidestepping more run-of-the-mill local fare such as sewers and snow removal. Instead, she campaigned on so-called "wedge issues" including abortion, religion, and gun rights. With these she unseated a three-term mayor and became a polarizing political figure in the process.

Even more compelling to me than all this, however, is the interest she expressed as mayor of Wasilla in banning some books at the local library. The Times has this to say:
Shortly after becoming mayor, former city officials and Wasilla residents said, Ms. Palin approached the town librarian about the possibility of banning some books, though she never followed through and it was unclear which books or passages were in question.

Ann Kilkenny, a Democrat who said she attended every City Council meeting in Ms. Palin’s first year in office, said Ms. Palin brought up the idea of banning some books at one meeting. “They were somehow morally or socially objectionable to her,” Ms. Kilkenny said.

The librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, pledged to “resist all efforts at censorship,” Ms. Kilkenny recalled. Ms. Palin fired Ms. Emmons shortly after taking office but changed course after residents made a strong show of support. Ms. Emmons, who left her job and Wasilla a couple of years later, declined to comment for this article.

In 1996, Ms. Palin suggested to the local paper, The Frontiersman, that the conversations about banning books were “rhetorical.”
I wish the Times had provided some indication as to which "morally or socially objectionable" books Pain expressed an interest in banning. For my part, I consider book banning to be undesirable, even in cases where the books in question constitute unpopular speech. I suppose that makes me a good liberal--not in the sense of someone who endorses a left-wing politics per se, but rather in the sense of someone who holds fast to at least some of the tents of liberalism.

What truly fascinates me about the issue of Palin's interest in book banning, though, is the synergy it seems to share with right-leaning religious groups who in recent years have attempted to get books such as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter (of course there are many others) off of public library shelves. There are plenty of people who say books don't matter much anymore--that they're a medium in decline, that they've been edged out by television and the internet, etc. If that's true, then why all this interest on the part not only of the Christian right, but indeed of other groups, to ban them? Or, why all the outcry over Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison's 2006 swearing-in ceremony, in which he used not the Christian Bible but instead the Koran to consecrate his oath of office?

I don't have concrete answers to these questions as yet; they do open up some interesting future directions for my research. For now, though, I will say this: the Palin book-banning controversy, coupled with the other examples I mention above, suggest that print (and printed books in particular) is far from dead. If anything, print remains a lightning-rod for the some of the most important social controversies of our time.


Christian Canzoneri said...

If I were the type of person that made flip remarks on scholarly blogs I would say she sought to ban books on birth control and succeeded.

Ted Striphas said...

Hi Chris,

Thanks for your comment, to which I can only respond, OUCH!