The bad thing about posting twice a week is that I don’t get the opportunity to rant intemperately about anything, so I’m forced to rant temperately.
Over the past couple of weeks, a story slowly bubbled, then brewed over, then left a mild stain that everyone can ignore. I am, of course, talking about the Sicko Conflagration, as Robert Ludlum might have called it were he still alive.
Numerous accounts and commentary exist by now, but you can follow the story in three stages.
- The director of the Enfield, CT public library canceled a showing of the Michael Moore movie “Sicko” after threats of decreased funding from the town council.
- A whole bunch of people blathered on about how awful it was to cancel the film.
- The library director announced that “Sicko” will be shown at some point in the future, along with other movies providing alternative viewpoints.
Some responses were bold, but incorrect. The Connecticut Library Association claimed that “If politicians in Connecticut cities and towns felt free to remove or cancel showings of materials that they didn’t like or were controversial, the basic freedom of speech rights of town residents would be denied.”
This ignores the fact that nobody was calling for “Sicko” to be removed from the collection, and that even if it were no resident’s freedom of speech would have been abridged. The freedom of speech of the Library as a corporate entity was definitely abridged, but it’s not clear that a public library has a freedom of speech as such.
An even bolder response was no more correct. “Militant fascism is on the march in the town of Enfield, Connecticut,” wrote a blogger from Kentucky, apparently uninformed about what “militant” or “fascism” mean either separately or together.
Various library commentators have decried censorship, but that’s the kind of thing they like to do, so we can ignore them. If the government isn’t prohibiting the publication of something, it’s not censorship. It’s just something librarians like to say to make themselves sound noble and give themselves something to be self-righteous about. “Sicko” is still there for everyone to view, just not at the public library for the moment.
Let’s look at the various issues involved. First, should the director have canceled the showing? I’m sure there are librarians who would consider him cowardly for not standing up for the God-given right of the citizens of Enfield to sit in the library watching a documentary about health care. Proceeding with the “Sicko” showing wasn’t going to turn the director into another George Christian, though I dare say the Enfield town council should be easier to take on than the FBI.
Considering that the alternative was the possibility of losing library funding and possibly his job, I’d say he made the right choice. It’s easy to take bold stands against ignorant, powerless rubes who are afraid the library collection will turn their children into gay penguins. It’s quite another thing to take a bold stand against ignorant rubes with power over your job and library. The FBI might harass librarians, but it can’t fire them or take away their funding. It’s also easy to take a bold stance when you’re not the one in danger.
Then there’s the issue of whether he should show it later, but along with other points of view. That’s what the library is supposed to provide, right? Lots of perspectives on a topic? But what does “balanced” mean? One might think that it would mean showing “Sicko,” and then possibly whatever the opposite of “Sicko” is, something that shows the American healthcare system in a positive light, like old episodes of “Dr. Kildare” or “Marcus Welby.”
Not everyone agrees. The head of the ALA OIF said that a balanced library collection or program “‘certainly does not mean that all opinions must be presented all at once’ but is instead ‘an assurance that the interested library user will be able to find a diversity of opinion within the library’s collection over time.’”
However, from the other films for showing mentioned in the first news article – “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Trouble the Waters,” and a PBS documentary – it seems pretty clear that this program didn’t have any balance over time. Is that a big deal? Not to me. Just as nobody has a right to sit in the library watching videos, nobody is forced to, and if I were a conservative resident of Enfield, I wouldn’t protest that library programs always ignored my point of view. I’d just ignore the library and vote against continuing funding it, because that’s the sort of thing people do when a public institution doesn’t meet their needs.
It’s clear that most librarians are liberals, when they aren’t socialists or communists or anarchists or some other “progressive” -ists, but there’s almost no community in the country that doesn’t have pockets of conservatives. Why have a film series that repeatedly presents only the liberal point of view? It’s not enough to say the conservative point of view is often nonsense. That’s the case with every political side.
Presumably these films are supposed to spur debate and discussion. Why not show “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” and debate and discuss that? Probably only liberals go see these library showings anyway, so they could mock Ben Stein just as easily as they celebrate Michael Moore or Al Gore. The library would have had a better defense against outside meddling, too.
The director could have used the old line about a good library having something to offend everyone, but that’s hard to do when there’s nothing in the program to offend liberals. Since the library didn’t present anything to offend liberals, the town council was just stepping in to do that job. They succeeded admirably.
Quite possibly, the library thought it was bringing the community what it needs. Next time, I want to examine some the people who brought the Enfield library to its knees.