Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

“Censorship” and False Courage

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.



  1. Public Librarian says:

    There is a huge amount of censorship going on in the American media. The entire Occupy Wall Street movement is receiving little air time in the convential American media. However, thousands and thousand of regular, normally non-radical people are involved in these protests.Sorry AL, I think you are being naive.

    • Unfortunately all too true. But then, who owns the “conventional media”?

    • Randal Powell, Champion of Effective School Libraries says:

      Occupy Wall Street was not getting much attention at first, but it is being covered now as far as I can tell. Even when it wasn’t, the information was still available on YouTube, Facebook, and other websites and blogs.

      Internet = Good Thing.

    • The media also didn’t cover my birthday party. That’s censorship.

    • librarian a says:

      I saw articles on Yahoo news and Time as early as last weekend. I don’t know if that fits your definition of “conventional” but it sure fits mine.

      It’s not necessarily censorship if a story doesn’t hit the mainstream media. It’s usually media companies deciding a story isn’t interesting or sticky enough to devote air time to it.

  2. The Occupy Wall Street protests are in the top five Google News stories and have been for several days. They ARE being covered by the media. Maybe they are not always being portrayed in exactly the way that the protesters would prefer, but sorry, you don’t get to count that as censorship. That’s just life.

  3. VaLibrarian says:

    Yes, the Occupy Wall Street protests are being covered by the mainstream media, but the reporting tends to portray Occupy Wall Street as some sort of circus act, focusing on the odd and unusual nature of the protesters while trying to avoid or dismiss a real discussion of the issues that OWS is bringing to the table. When they do deal with the issues, the stock line is “they are unfocused and don’t seem to have a message.” Sometimes an article will give a cursory nod to the issues and stick it deep in the story – not in the first several paragraphs. It’s bad journalism – if this many people are making this much noise, and it’s spreading across the country, the real story is “what is motivating these people to do this,” not, “gee, aren’t they a weird bunch of people who seem unfocused.”

  4. Again? The Annoyed Library makes the Ramones look eclectic.

  5. I’ve been noticing people are more and more saying what I’m saying about Banned Books Week. I know, however, the Annoyed Librarian has been speaking about it long before I was even on the scene. Thank you, AL, for your leadership on this issue.

    But do you all notice how the ALA just plows ahead, even after decades of criticism, and even ramps up the propaganda to higher and higher levels? I plan to write soon on the ALA’s tacitly admitted plagiarism and ALA Code of Ethics violation to promote BBW. Was the OIF thinking plagiarism was acceptable because there is never any consequences for “the ALA and its minions … going on about nonexistent censorship in America”?

  6. Wow, do we seriously object to “solidarity with librarians in intellectually unfree countries”? Or is this just a knee-jerk reaction because the AL said it?

    1. The mainstream media’s coverage (or apparently lack thereof, though I’ve heard loads about it) of Occupy Wall Street is not censorship. Individual media outlets are not required to cover *all* the stories, or cover them in the way you might like. Come on now.

    2. It is important to talk about the fact that there are people – even here in the U.S. – who would prefer that certain books not be available (usually to teenagers). Display those challenged books! Promote them! I love that.
    But stuff like that publicity stunt where the library director got “arrested” by the police? That kind of posturing is ridiculous, and it makes light of of the *real* risks that librarians in other parts of the world face. I don’t dislike BBW as much as AL does, but she’s right about this.

  7. I Like Books says:

    Well, we sure got sidetracked by that Wall Street thing, didn’t we? A company that owns a newspaper can decide not to cover the protest (if, in fact, that’s what they’re doing) because it’s their newspaper, so it’s reasonable for them to give direction to it. But in Kuwait, Iran, China, many parts of the world, a newspaper might decide not to cover an event because they know the outfit would be shut down and the reporters and editors responsible arrested. Some countries make no pretenses about political prisoners, like China’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Liu Xiaobo, who was jailed for co-authoring a petition for political reform. And in Iran they not only arrest the activists, but the lawyers that represent them!

    People here in the US don’t know what censorship is. The ALA doesn’t know what censorship is. To our shame we have people that do their best at censorship within the limits of the law, but thankfully they don’t have much to work with.

  8. Libraryman says:

    The freedombuts DON’T run America? Whew, ok. I was worried there for a second.

  9. I read the original article about the Kuwati school, yes, the AL is correct that librarians in the USA have little to brag about regarding making banned books available, however, the Banned Books Week focuses attention upon the concept of censorship in its various forms (self censorship, censorship by not writing, censorship by not buying, censorship by keeping on a high shelf etc) as well as censorship by imprisoning the writer, publisher, artist, censorship by the writer/thinker who chooses to avoid problems by not submitting their creation to public view. I own a t-shirt I wear regularly in my library which states “I read banned books” those books, I inform my clients include “The Bible”, “The Koran”, books which mention “unacceptable behaviour”- for someone. Even now, “Animal Farm” imagine in Kuwait, trying to explain that the pigs on the farm decide that 2 legs are good and 4 legs are bad! Sorry, I can’t stop smiling, boy I would love to have that argument, it would be worth being deported, and wouldn’t George Orwell love the irony of a society embodying some of his “1984” strategies banning Animal Farm!
    However, the AL was also writing about Baned Book Week, which I must admit I haven’t heard of, but must involve the promotion of books on or about Bands, school bands, brass bands, marching bands, rock bands, I finish this comment with the tune “Trouble in River City” in my mind.


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