With PC outrage on the rise over several children’s books by the newly “racist” Dr. Seuss, I called up the Ukiah library to see if Dr. Seuss’s head might be next on the guillotine of political correctness here in Mendocino County. Dr. Seuss books have been staples of the children’s sections of public libraries since he published the first of his 60 books, And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street, back in 1937.
As luck would have it, the woman who answered the phone was the children’s section librarian, Samantha White, on the job at the Ukiah Library for two years now. I first agreed at her request to refer to her only as a “library staffer” but am using her name now since it appeared in subsequent emails from both White herself and a library director. We spoke for several minutes about the Dr. Seuss flap. “I learned to read by reading the Dr. Seuss books,” White told me. ”There’s lots of emotional attachment to Dr. Seuss in the community, and if the community loves [his books] it’s our job to provide them.” She went on to state (with to my ears admirable conviction and passion), that, “We’re not in the business of censorship,” and added that the library “makes its own decisions and neither promotes nor discourages” the reading of specific books. She sensibly advised those opposed to the beleaguered Dr. Seuss’s books to simply not read them. What a concept.
White’s comments support the American Library Association’s Bill of Rights, first drafted in 1938, which speaks out against the “growing intolerance, suppression of free speech and censorship affecting the right of minorities and individuals.” Her comments similarly support the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read Statement, which states, in part, that “the freedom to read is essential to our democracy.” It was reassuring to hear from White that the county’s central library is apparently staying true to those ideals in these polarizing times instead of taking the easier path of knuckling under to the politics du jour.
As I sat down to write the story my iPhone dinged with a series of puzzling emails from the library. The first was from White herself, who had somehow unearthed my email address. She had clearly not been congratulated by her higher-ups on her decision to share her outspoken and courageous views on free speech and censorship with me during our very brief phone conversation. She wrote that she was not aware that she had been speaking to a reporter for the Anderson Valley Advertiser (though the first words out of my mouth were my name, the purpose of my call, and that I write for the AVA – I never disguise my identity). She went on to request that I “go through official channels” to speak with “the Library Director,” that she had spoken “off the record” to me (never mentioned during our conversation), and further requested that I “pull any notes I might have taken.” Totally blindsided by this, to say nothing of totally flummoxed, I responded briefly that I did in fact fully identify myself and my purpose in calling, and that I couldn’t imagine what she could possibly be so afraid of.
I concluded that “It’s scary that county employees have been this thoroughly muzzled.” Doesn’t free speech work both ways? Not only to the books coming in from the outside but also to library employees on the inside? Library, heal thyself!
I next heard from Deborah Fader Samson, according to her email Director, Mendocino County Cultural Services Agency Libraries/Museum/Parks. She wrote, “When Samantha answered your call she took you to be a patron with questions. I wouldn’t know what the AVA was if you phoned me and started asking questions. Sam isn’t muzzled; she’s just conscientious about spreading misinformation when facts are called for, as are most Library workers. We have a strong commitment to the truth. That’s why Sam requested you contact me for an official statement.”
Translation: the only truth is the truth created and vetted by library/county higher-pay-grade handlers.
Sam had described principles in her comments to me, principles in line with the country’s nearly century-old codified commitment to freedom of expression in American libraries. Nothing required fact checking; there was no “misinformation.” She did a fine job without prompting or oversight (dare we say censorship?) from above and should have been spared this after-the-fact hand wringing. Funneling information through an “approved” source is one of the most insidious forms of censorship and is frequently justified from on high under the guise of the need to “tell the truth.”
It gives me no pleasure to share this email trail. The library is apparently doing the right thing in defending not only the principle and practice of free speech but also condemning censorship, which has most recently ensnared Dr. Seuss in its grubby clutches. This is good news and would have been a fairly run-of-the-mill tale had it run its natural course. But its bizarre follow-up (don’t use my name, my comments were off the record, lose your notes) ethically demanded inclusion in the story.
It’s an all-too-familiar textbook example of how politics ─ as changeable and fickle as the latest hair color and descriptors of ethnicities and sexual orientation ─ can chip away at even our loftiest ideals, in this instance freedom of expression in our libraries. It’s also a timely reminder that this freedom doesn’t apply solely to books, but also to those who read them, write them, and, yes, ensure their existence in our libraries. To be cowed into silence by the shifting political judgments of the day is akin to empowering a blowhard bully to keep right on truckin.’
On a broader scale, there’s this contemporary notion that kids shouldn’t be exposed to out-of-political-fashion ideas, that they should learn about the world in a sort of pleasant, lulling ambiance undisturbed by either judgment or disagreement, where politeness is all. This is ultimately crippling, and is certainly not an atmosphere where tomorrow’s critical thinkers have the opportunity to stretch their minds. Conflict and differences of opinion, freely expressed, are what create the perspectives and knowledge that the next generation will hold to be true. Just like White illustrated in her condemnation of censorship. The late author David Foster Wallace captured this well in writing that “Good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
My greatest role model was my father. He followed a sort of Atticus Finch-style of parenting. A lawyer, he believed passionately that a book never corrupted anyone, a belief he lived by buying me any book I wanted that might not be available to me either in the library or by virtue of my age. If there was something I wanted to read I wrote its title down on a piece of paper that he took with him to his office; at noon he walked a block down Market Street to Stacey’s bookstore and bought it for me. In this way I read Lolita (among many other books) and shared it with my friends, many of whose parents forbade it as “unsuitable” for kids. Then at the dinner table we talked about those books, demystifying the forbidden and robbing it of its power while simultaneously creating a challenging intellectual environment where no subject was off limits.
Dr. Seuss would certainly have agreed with this unfettered intellectual freedom. Theodor Seuss Geisel (his actual name) wrote in his last book, Oh the Places You’ll Go,” published in 1990, that “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”