Now that the nonsense of Band Books Week is over, let’s take a look at a situation where books are really banned. As far as I can tell, the only sensible writing in the last week – other than my own – about “Banned” Books week is this article by a Canadian librarian on her experiences with censorship in Kuwait.
She was the librarian at a Canadian school in Kuwait, and described an interaction with the Ministry of Information of Kuwait, which actively censors books mentioning such offensive topics as pigs, nudity, kissing, homosexuality, Israel, or Judaism. The Ministry of Information censor asked some ridiculous questions and then decided which books to ban completely and which to merely touch up a bit.
Examples of touching up included marking out the word “flight” and replacing it with “journey” when discussing Mohammad’s flight to Medina and drawing shorts on the naked backside of someone in a comic drawing.
Later, the librarian had the choice to either alter the books or to just ban them entirely, and she chose to keep them away from the children rather than to mark them up in what to any reasonable person would be absurd ways.
She wondered whether she did the right thing, noting that “To flout the norms of Kuwait would have been to disrespect the culture and brand myself a troublemaker, a sure way to get myself fired, deported, or worse: arrested and slammed with a travel ban. I wouldn’t have minded being fired or deported, but the prospect of living under house arrest or being imprisoned in the Gulf was too frightening to consider.”
There’s a lot to consider in this short article. First, this librarian – unlike any American librarian – actually had to make a hard choice about access to these books. They weren’t going to be widely available in the country like “banned” books are in America.
And the conflict wouldn’t consist of taking on some ignorant rubes with little to no power. The consequences, as the writer admits, could have been serious, and for her ultimately not worth it. The OIF might disagree, but find it hard to believe that any American librarians would risk prison to make sure And Tango Makes Three stayed on their library shelves.
The ALA and American librarians can make such brazen claims about their defense of intellectual freedom and the freedom to read because they’re in a country where these values are already widely shared and enshrined into law.
I believe the author did the right thing in this case, and that making trouble would have served no purpose other than to get the author in prison and maybe salve her conscience. But a salved conscience isn’t worth prison for something like this. It’s not like she committed a murder and felt bad that she wasn’t confessing.
The conflict with the censor came after the librarian had tried to select books that were “respectful of Kuwaiti values” even though the school was supposed to be an international school. Another question to consider is, why should such values be respected at all?
Based just on the information in the article, Kuwaiti values don’t include the respect of other’s values if those values conflict with their own. It’s hard to take seriously the values of people who object to mentions of kissing or Israel in schoolbooks.
Though the ALA Council makes the occasional inappropriate foray into foreign policy, the OIF sticks to the United States, but were the OIF to comment on the situation in Kuwait, the position might be that there’s no intellectual freedom to defend. Going to prison to defend something that didn’t exist would be pretty foolish.
That’s one difference between the United States and Kuwait. Here, except for slander and libel, we can say or write pretty much what we want. We can criticize our President, poke fun at our politicians, and skewer other people’s religions. It’s all part of the hustle and bustle of being a free society.
Sure, there are people in this society who don’t like it, people who think they have a right not to be challenged or criticized. They’re the “freedom, but” people. “I believe in freedom, but you shouldn’t be allowed to do things I find offensive, like mocking my religion.” To which the earnest believer in freedom might be forced to reply, “then stop believing such bizarre and irrational things,” just for the fun of seeing what might happen.
In America, the freedombuts don’t have the upper hand, at least not yet. I believe that most Americans maybe wish some people wouldn’t say some of the things they do, but they don’t believe those people should be censored. It’s not just librarians that believe this, and especially not some of the librarians critical of this blog. It’s most of the country.
That’s what makes it easy to make such strong claims about “banned” books and intellectual freedom. Librarians are preaching to the choir, and yet some pretend they’re standing on the barricades protecting American freedom from…well, from nothing much.
The next time Band Books Week comes around, it would be less selfrighteous and much less annoying if the ALA and its minions stopped going on about nonexistent censorship in America, and instead started publicizing all the places in the world where censorship really does occur, where books really are banned, and where librarians who toed the ALA line would be imprisoned.
Instead of patting ourselves on the back for showing false courage in the face of nonexistent oppression, solidarity with librarians in intellectually unfree countries would show more awareness of what censorship really is, and why it’s not librarians who are special heroes of intellectual freedom, but a whole country.