What a confluence of events this week! A few hours after this column posts, Sarah Palin takes the stage for what might turn out to be her one unscripted, real-time appearance before the American electorate. Tomorrow â€“ speaking of â€œreal timeâ€ â€“ Bill Maherâ€™s documentary Religulous will open in theaters to poke fun at (and to poke holes in) religious-fundamentalist worldviews like Palinâ€™s. Also at the movies tomorrow: An American Carol, the first-ever right-wing political farce.
The first-ever fictional right-wing farce, that is.
And just in case you hadnâ€™t noticed, Sept. 29-Oct. 4 is Banned Books Week â€“ the week when the nationâ€™s librarians hope youâ€™ll give at least a momentâ€™s thought to the continuing threat censorship poses to our free society. It is entirely fitting that Palinâ€™s debate with Joe Biden should fall during Banned Books Week, since her resume includes a contemptible brush with book-banning during her term as Wasilla mayor in the mid-1990s.
Since Palin became John McCainâ€™s running mate a month ago, I have been frustrated with the mainstream mediaâ€™s refusal to pay much attention to her censorial tendencies. There have been a few back-of-the-section newspaper articles and brief mentions in Palin biographies, but few words of real outrage concerning an issue that directly reflects upon the Republican ticketâ€™s attitude toward free expression. Even last weekend, when actor and Creative Coalition member Tim Daly mentioned it on Real Time, the panel failed to discuss it at length â€“ perhaps because the subject didnâ€™t offer fellow guest Ralph Nader yet another opportunity to rail incoherently against the major-party candidatesâ€™ â€œcorporate masters.â€
Nevertheless, Daly was on target when he identified the censorship incident as a disqualifying offense. Indeed, I consider it not only a firing offense for Palin, but for McCain as well, for tolerating (much less choosin as a running mate) someone who would so blatantly undermine the Constitution that the president swears on a Bible to uphold.
Banned Books Week had a higher profile back in the late 1980s and early â€™90s, at the height of the Reagan-era culture wars; its primacy declined as conservatives shifted the focus of their ginned-up anger away from crucifixes in urine and toward Bill Clintonâ€™s peccadilloes â€“ and particularly after congressional Republicans finally succeeded in gutting the National Endowment for the Arts in 1996.
That same year, Palin became mayor of Wasilla; among her first acts was the elimination of the museum directorâ€™s position and a request for the resignations of city officials including the town librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons. She characterized the latter move as a loyalty test, not a politicization of the public library; in any case, Emmonsâ€™ loyalties were tested again on two separate occasions that fall, when Palin asked her if she could â€œlive withâ€ an attempt to pull books from the library.
Palin later claimed that the conversation was â€œrhetoricalâ€ in nature. However, the Mat-su Valley Frontiersman, a local Wasilla paper, noted that Palin asked how Emmons would respond if local citizens circled the library in protest over a book. â€œThis is different than a normal book-selection procedure or a book-challenge policy,â€ Emmons said at the time. â€œ[Palin] was asking me how I would deal with her saying a book can’t be in the library.
â€œShe asked me if I would object to censorship, and I replied, ‘Yup.’ And I told her it would not be just me. This was a constitutional question, and the American Civil Liberties Union would get involved, too.â€
(Emmons was certainly correct on that score, but she neednâ€™t have waited for a specific censorship attempt to get civil-liberties groups involved. In 1992-93 I was a media-relations fellow with the ACLUâ€™s Arts Censorship Project, and we regularly leaped at opportunities to call attention to hijinks like Palinâ€™s â€“ even before they became legally actionable. You might call our efforts in those days â€œpre-emptive strikes,â€ aimed at dealing with gathering constitutional threats before they could fully materialize.)
A few months after Palinâ€™s censorship inquiry, following the Frontiersmanâ€™s coverage of the incident, Palin sent Emmons a letter saying, â€œI do not feel I have your full support in my efforts to govern the city of Wasilla. Therefore I intend to terminate your employmentâ€ as of a week following the date of the letter. A sizable public outcry in favor of the popular librarian forced Palin to cave a few days later â€“ though she did succeed in canning the townâ€™s police chief (with no good reason) during the same period.
What sorts of books might Palin have been â€œrhetoricallyâ€ attempting to remove? (Leave aside, for the moment, that Palin is too dim a bulb to know the difference between a â€œrhetoricalâ€ question and a â€œhypotheticalâ€ one.) Well, according to the American Library Association, in 1996 â€“ the year Palin stuck her nose into Ms. Emmonsâ€™ business â€“ books that required defense against censorship efforts nationwide included Madeleine Lâ€™Engleâ€™s A Wrinkle in Time (for allegedly undermining religious beliefs); Shel Silversteinâ€™s A Light in the Attic (for having a â€œdrearyâ€ and â€œnegativeâ€ message); Richard D. Mohrâ€™s A More Perfect Union: Why Straight America Must Stand Up for Gay Rights (because straight America mustnâ€™t, apparently); John Knowlesâ€™ A Separate Peace (for â€œgraphic languageâ€); and Kurt Vonnegutâ€™s Slaughterhouse-Five (a perennial favorite of censors for its violence and sexual content).
The ALA identified last yearâ€™s most â€œfrequently challengedâ€ books as And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell; The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier; Oliveâ€™s Ocean, by Kevin Henkes; The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain; The Color Purple, by Alice Walker; TTYL, by Lauren Myracle; I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou; Itâ€™s Perfectly Normal, by Robie Harris; The Perks of Being A Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky; and Toni Morrisonâ€™s The Bluest Eye and Beloved.
Based on these lists, it would be easy (but pointless) to guess which kinds of books the Church Lady might have targeted. Instead, itâ€™s more important to note the manner in which Palin intimidated Emmons while keeping her hands relatively clean, threatening censorship without actually pulling the trigger. Thatâ€™s the sort of tactic that â€œchillsâ€ free expression without actually suppressing it â€“ and without drawing more widespread and vehement criticism.
Itâ€™s also the sort of rhetorical trickery (see, Sarah, some of us can actually use â€œrhetoricalâ€ in a sentence) that characterizes her convoluted discussions of creationism as well as abortion and Roe v. Wade. When Katie Couric asked her, point blank, whether a daughter raped by her father should have to carry her baby to term â€“ a position Palin has staked repeatedly over the years â€“ Palin found a way to dodge and weave around the topic for no fewer than 15 sentences (few of them complete) before landing on, â€œI’m saying that, personally, I would counsel the person to choose life, despite horrific, horrific circumstances that this person would find themselves in. And, um, if you’re asking, though, kind of foundationally here, should anyone end up in jail for having an abortion, absolutely not. That’s nothing I would ever support.â€
And so, in arguing for a position she has held so strongly throughout her public life â€“ she introduced abortion as a public-policy matter at the local government level in Wasilla, for godâ€™s sake â€“ Palin wound up pretty much expressing the exact opposite opinion. It’s a tactic that many people find disarming, even charming — though others find it to be sorta evil.
Expect a lot of this kind of nonsense tonight, and over the rest of Palinâ€™s excellent adventure in national politics. Hopefully sheâ€™ll slink back to Alaska on Nov. 5 and weâ€™ll be left with lots of nifty memories. Heaven help us if sheâ€™s still creating new memories on the national stage in January.