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Common sense

by Jim Elliott
| September 22, 2022 12:00 AM

Irate Americans are arming themselves and heading to library board meetings to defend children against evil by insisting that the library remove books that offend society. Notice, I did not say trying to defend their own children — they mean to defend the children of people they do not know.

Listen, they are going about it all wrong. If I wanted to keep my kids from reading a book the last thing I would tell them is that they can’t read it. I spent a lot of time as a kid under the covers with a flashlight reading books I wasn’t supposed to.

But I was never threatened with a gun. A belt, yes.

I don’t know if they’ve been banned yet, but it seems that books on manners haven’t been read much of late. “Dear Miss Manners, I am going to a library board meeting, should I carry a semi-automatic or will a Colt Peacemaker do?”

Speaking of guns (and aren’t we always?) the Kalispell library has had bullet riddled books placed in book bins. Overdue, too, I would bet, and BTW, a paper bookmark is simpler than a bullet hole. And cheaper by far.

I have read hardly any of the books that are currently being objected to, and I bet the people objecting haven’t read them, either. I have read books that were once banned, and I survived. I have read the “Song of Songs, which Is Solomon’s” in the Bible, and I have to admit I found certain passages of it pretty racy (see Song of Songs 1:13 for example).

We all know that ideas can be dangerous things, but we should also know that suppressing ideas can be even more dangerous because of the added importance it gives them. “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine was instrumental in the thinking that led to America’s independence from Great Britain, where it was banned for promoting seditious thought. In my mind’s eye there is a young Patrick Henry reading it under the covers with a candle, but that wouldn’t have worked.

In Bonners Ferry, Idaho, the Boundary County librarian was presented with a list of 400 books that irate citizens wanted banned. The library didn’t stock any of them but said if they had a request for one of them, they would order it, because, just as the First Amendment guarantees the right to freedom of expression, it also guarantees the right to receive information. Attendees accused the library of inflicting harm on young minds, but as one trustee pointed out, parents were the ones to protect their own children, not the government.

Most of the controversy these days seems to be over books that discuss sexual orientation and the fears that they will lead young readers into a life perceived by the protesters as wrong. But there are also books that offend people because of their religious beliefs, race, skin color, and even books that might make people feel ashamed of what their ancestors did. There are famous literary works of the past that contain words that offend people. In the early 1800s a man named Thomas Bowdler decided that Shakespeare was a little too bawdy for the genteel classes of Bowdler’s day and reworded the passages that might offend sensitive minds to basic pablum. When he wrote his plays, Shakespeare did not write for intellectuals, but for the masses who wanted cheap (and bawdy) entertainment. As a result, Bowdler got rid of all the good jokes.

As a disclaimer, I have to state that I have received two awards from the Montana Library Association for supporting intellectual freedom. To me, there is nothing more politically conservative than keeping government from controlling what we think and read, and in that I take a libertarian position. I am proud of getting those awards, but I am prouder still of the librarians who do the work and face the insults and threats from self-appointed guardians of morality. Self-appointed guardians of morality are nothing new, but threatening librarians physically is, and it is wrong.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.

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