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Culture Zohn: Swift Booking -- What happened in Wasilla should not stay in Wasilla

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Last week I was sent a list that was supposedly the list of books that Sarah Palin asked be banned from her local Wasilla library.

I have been fretting over it ever since.

As readers of the Culture Zohn know, censorship is an abiding concern of mine; last year I wrote about the Scrotum Wars over a book called The Higher Power of Lucky and just last week about The Unbearable Lightness of Being, with its still-contemporary motif of repression.

At first, because Palin is anathema to me, I was ready to jump all over the list.
I wasn't alone. As it is soon to be Banned Books Week, the list took on all the aspects of a viral potato.

But nobody could determine if the list was genuine. And people, including myself, have been cautious about spreading Obama-is-a-Muslim kind of lies or risk being accused of what might best be called Swift Booking.

What is a matter of public record is that during the course of a meeting, Sarah Palin asked the librarian of Wasilla whether she would be willing to remove certain books from the shelves of the public library; the librarian said she would resist any such effort; shortly thereafter, she was terminated. The librarian was eventually reinstated after an outcry (and then left); Palin now claims that the question was rhetorical and procedural in nature.

I, along with my colleagues at other media organizations like the New York Times and TIME magazine, went on a scavenger hunt to see if the list was real, as did a number of library and publishing related sites like Librarian.net. An Anchorage Daily News story was skeptical that there was a list -- council people, librarians and local officials have no records that an actual list was submitted.

Earlier this week, after a number of conversations, I learned that the American Library Association is fairly sure the list is what they are calling a hoax: they referred me to Snopes.com, which vigorously proclaims the whole thing false and describes in greater detail what actually transpired in Wasilla.

According to most professionals I spoke with, and which Snopes and Librarian.net confirmed, the list looked like an amalgam of the top one hundred banned books, freely available on websites. Librarian.net was early on able to add that some of the books weren't published at the time (a couple of the Harry Potters)and there are further details about the meeting at which the "rhetorical" request was made.

It's easy to see that even the Swift Boaters would not be swift enough anymore -- that rumors like Obama being a Muslim or Not Sarah Palin's List truly take on a verisimilitude that even smart people can, and did, swallow in this case because of predispositions.

But Sarah Palin's question to the Wasilla librarian, however "rhetorical" or "procedural" she now says it was, and the subsequent firing of the librarian, irrespective of the introduction of any actual list, should be a wake up call in and of itself.

I have learned so much more about how challenges from moms like Sarah Palin are multiplying and how what we do know about Sarah Palin and intellectual freedom is already proof that those four words are oxymoronic.

Palin believes in choice after all: her choice.

But when it comes to books, it's not a matter of degree. You either believe people should be free to read what they choose, or not. That doesn't mean a good parent, good librarian or good teacher shouldn't guide a child.

But the idea that challenges are being mounted all over the country on a regular basis because some mom does not want her children exposed to certain things takes my breath away.

The movies have addressed this by making a parental advisory system and even record companies have lyric warnings. But the movies and music are still THERE.

To check into what the challenge process really entailed, I spoke with Deborah Caldwell-Stone, a former lawyer who is now deputy director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association which provides legal counsel, advice and a friendly ear to librarians in trouble -- a help line of sorts, to listen when people like Palin make "rhetorical" requests or mount more official legal challenges and to also pay legal fees when librarians themselves are sued.

The American Library Association meets once a year and runs workshops to educate their own (check out this fascinating video of one of their sessions at their convention from this past June on intellectual freedom. A far cry from straw cowboy hats or rock n' rollin' dancing conventioneers.) Other groups like the Merit Fund and Freedom to Read are privately funded by the publishing association or other wealthy individuals (George Soros has backed another one on privacy) and work in tandem with the ALA.

The OIF is charged with documenting records of challenges; how many, where, what books and what happened. They are not allowed to take partisan positions, but merely to defend the right of people to read what books the librarians order and the right of librarians to order the books they choose. The system is highly imperfect for it depends on ad hoc reporting: people read articles in newspapers or librarians or teachers report in on the various challenges. The ALA knows therefore that challenges are under-reported merely because not everyone remembers to phone it in. That said, generally they vet the source: city council meeting, someone who attended, etc. In 2007, there were 420 actual challenges.

On the other side are organizations like Pabbis.org, which recommend to parents books for removal and which have short form instructions on their website help with making challenges easy.

Their perspective is that if a book is there which is inappropriate to some families, it should not be there for any family.

Mothers are encouraged to be activists -- like Sarah Palin -- and are given the tools they need to go up against the library or judicial system.

Recent and current challenges are for "unsuitability for their age group", or for "racial epithets" (e.g. Huck Finn, the N word), or for "subject matter" (e.g. homosexuality, gay relationships or marriage) and include: Fayetville, Arkansas (mother Laurie Taylor asked that 70 books be removed, including the Homo Handbook, but the school board voted to retain them); Lewiston, Maine (Joane Karkos, a grandmother, got a newsletter from a right-to-life group and asked that It's Perfectly Normal, a sex ed book, be removed; the public library decided to keep it on shelf); St. Louis (Growing up Gay in America, a current challenge by the Citizens Against Pornography); Wichita Falls (group of citizens, minister-led, asked that Daddy's Roommate and Heather Has Two Mommies, be placed on restricted shelves which adults have to sign out -- an opposing group went to court, which ordered them to return the books to the children's library); Gwinett County, Georgia (Laura Mallory, mom, crusaded against the Harry Potters -- which apparently are on many lists for celebrating magic and paganism; three levels of civic and judicial appeals upheld decision to keep the books on the shelves).

Sometimes, while the challenges are pending, the books are removed from the shelves, sometimes not. When I say removed, I mean just that: often the books just... vanish. Yesterday at my local library (the Pacific Palisades) we could not find either copy of And Tango Makes Three, the number one banned book, the story of two penguins at the Central Park Zoo who adopt an orphaned egg. The librarians hope that both were legitimate check outs, but, not long ago, they were nonplussed to find that a book that was already on a high shelf that was subject of a challenge was among -- like the citizens of Argentina in the late seventies...the disappeared.

If only all this energy were going towards teaching the children to read better!

This is the "base" that Sarah Palin so famously represents, the thing she is shoring up for the Republicans. The base that wants to limit access to some of the world's finest books, that does not trust reading, but who take their kids moose hunting and show them guns, who believe snowmobiles are the right way to get through the wilderness.

It is a base that considers the public library a den of iniquity.

Not enough people take their kids to libraries anymore to begin with. The internet has made doing research a stay at home thing. But libraries aren't just for kids; you can do genealogy research and photo research and just have a safe spot to stay off the streets. Libraries are mostly beautiful now: in Los Angeles they are among the newest and most up-to-date public buildings in the city; to me, they are more beautiful than any house of worship.

I go to the library at least once a week. I can afford to buy books, or at least some, but more than any bookstore, and certainly more than any online experience, the library is like a candy shoppe -- one delicious thing leads to another. You can surf the web, sure, but you have to come back to shore to swim out again, and the wave is in control, not you. At the library, you are in charge: you can put your hands on a book and read a page or a chapter and realize you need it very much or you only need it for one day, or a week, or not at all.

Andre Kertesz's beautiful book On Reading is just being reissued. It shows the glory of getting cozy with a book.

Libraries are not just buildings: they have librarians, like teachers, among the most undervalued resources in our country.

Pabbis.com tries to present itself as an educational tool as well. But all over their home page is the word "bad." What exactly constitutes a "bad" book? A list of lists from Pabbis has 1350 books on it!

There is fear all over any of these lists. I am trying to figure out how these moms are getting out of bed in the morning what with terrorists and immigrants and Russia and...

I guess....words.

Banned Books Week is upon us in a couple of weeks. In the midst of a tough and contentious political season it's hard not to look at everything from the food we eat to the clothes we wear to the books we read in a political light.

The librarians at my local library are putting out a display of all the banned books they can find on their shelves along with a note of solidarity to their colleague in Wasilla. You should encourage your local librarian to do the same.

Much of the reporting about Sarah Palin has mirrored the political landscape: on the coasts, people are freaking out and in the heartland, they are reassured.

They see that she goes to the supermarket and to sports games, that she has a real man who has supported her, that she has run a small city and a now a state and that she still manages to show her cleavage and be taken seriously.

Or they see that her religious and political beliefs color everything: her responsibilities to her job, to her children, to the citizens of her state.

Don't be distracted by the beehive and Tina Fey glasses or the cleavage or the moose or the snowmobile or the five kids or the downs syndrome or the pending grandchild.

Maybe Sarah's daughter would not be in her predicament (am I the only one who thinks it's a predicament anymore or has the fact that the father has appeared with McCain somehow taken the sting out of it?) if someone, let's say Sarah, had given her one of the sex education books on the list of most banned books.

This kingdom is the most sacred one: it doesn't depend on oil, or how much money you have, or where your house is, or who your friends are or what anybody else thinks. It is the kingdom of your mind, and access to it should be free, and is legislated to be free. The first amendment is the one we should be worried about when McCain and Palin are more worried about the second one. It comes second for a reason.

So no, Sarah Palin does not own this list; it is owned rather by all of the women (and men) who want to reserve the right to take away the thing we hold most dear in this country, and which our librarians and teachers guard vigilantly: the right to read and speak freely.

In the middle ages it was calleddroit de seigneur, when noblemen wanted to have their way with any women who lived in their domain. -- Is there a Droit de Sarah?

Doesn't having your way with books step over the line too?