Thursday, December 13, 2007

Parents Rights:Evils They See in Books

We can't begin to understand the self-identified parents-rights groups without considering their fear of ideas and books that contain ideas. These folk include an astonishing number of ideophobics and bibliophobics who fear and disdain the power and potential for evil of specific ideas and books.

This is part four of a series. Part one of basic concepts and the Mad Dad case is here. Part two on the attack of the control people is here. An overview of this mini-movement's aims is here.

Likely nearly all of us concede that some ideas are inherently evil. For the most repeated extreme, consider the Nazi concepts that whole sets of people their leaders asserted were inferior — Jews, Roms (gypsies), homosexuals, Roman Catholics and others — should either be worked to death as slaves or murdered or both in turn. Worldwide a few crackpots might support such concepts, but damned few.

Even so, refusing to admit such things ever happened or that some people could, did and do champion them is simultaneously cowardly, dishonest and anti-intellectual. Far better would be to expose people to the history and philosophy. Only then can the naive or unaware evaluate the ideas in their framework and in discussions. Hiding ideas or realities neither develops the mind nor, as Ovid might have written, humanizes the character (and not allow it to become cruel).

If we are to socialize our children, we must expose them to essential ideas and realities. Most of us parents also recognize that we instruct them in our thought and ideals, by both our words and actions. We are, in Kahlil Gibran's lingo, the bows and our children the arrows. We guide them as truly as we can, but we must let fly. It would seem that some parents-rights types want to hold that arrow, very tightly, until the kids are at least 18.

Some in the parents rights mini-movement seem to have little faith in their own modeling and teaching, and much less in their children's ability to think. We are still seeing this in pure form here, most obviously in the Lexington school case. The two couples appealing their loss in the Mad Dad lawsuit do honestly seem horrified at what the vast majority of their Lexington peers consider benign or positive ideas and expressions. They claimed in state and federal filings that even mentioning the reality that there are legally married same-sex couples is sex education and indoctrination. They even charged that this somehow prevents them from teaching their children what the foursome consider right and moral.

To most us of us, such hyperbole and well, irrationality, is a little sad and a lot silly. Unfortunately, both in Lexington and in little craters of such explosions elsewhere in the nation, this repeats. Such befuddled parents do far more than hamper their kids' ability to think.They use direct confrontation and even legal tactics to try to force their personal views on the entire community.

In the Mad Dad case, they demanded that teachers not mention, much less read, any of a list of taboo concepts around their kids. That could have taken the form of censoring topics for everyone, even those that arise spontaneously. Alternately, they would have their kids removed from each classroom any time any taboo arose.

The U.S. District Court Justice Mark L. Wolf pooh-poohed those demands in the foursome's court hearing, as well as in his dismissal of their suit. However, the battle continues on another front to pit parents-rights groups against librarians, educators and the most parents.

Skirmishes occur regularly in school and public libraries throughout the country. Despite our U.S. Constitutional Bill of Rights and our long history from colonial times of fighting such censorship, these groups fight on.

Personal Confession

I have to admit that I have loved books and libraries from my early reader days. Perhaps my sister is partially to blame. She is two years older and taught me to read when most kids were barely speaking whole sentences.

Our mother too was key. She kept a house of a thousand or more books at all times, always with at least one set of adult encyclopedia and a broad range of reference, non-fiction and fiction. When I asked about any topic, she'd generally say, "Look it up." Off I'd go to research and to think and to discuss at dinner or in the evening.

We read then and do now. She forbade us no book or idea and was always available to discuss anything we did not understand or that conflicted with her teachings, those of school or those at church. I lived in a home of ideas, not rote learning.

As the Alexander Pope wrote nearly three hundred years ago:
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Then in elementary school, I was also smitten by the lovely and involved children's librarian at the public facility in Danville, Virginia. The building itself was a grand mansion that had been home to a Confederate officer and housed the last days of the CSA. In the huge lower floor, I read everything in the children's area, starting with anything to do with dinosaurs or gods from anywhere. That librarian was so impressed by my taking out as many books as I could carry each week, that she was ready when I had read the room. She spoke with the head librarian and got me rights to all the adult books, after which she gave me lists of suggested reading to keep me perking.

From my own experience alone, I cannot believe that typical elementary school students must be protected from ideas. Such ways stunt intellect and emotion. The many students I have known were not primitive ignorami who needed shielding from ideas lest they be overpowered by them. Likewise, my beloved librarian in Danville never showed any evidence that she considered my brain too fragile to process information.

Public Funding

Those who would cull collections often claim that public funds should not buy books that the community (as in the cullers) object to being on shelves. Those more aligned with the American Library Association (ALA) free-speech-and-ideas guidelines are wont to say that public funds mean that the public libraries should never be controlled by such special interests.

According to various parents-rights websites, the ALA is on par with the United Nations as a bugbear. This seems to go back to those control issues. The ALA's position is that "Decisions about what materials are suitable for particular children should be made by the people who know them best—their parents or guardians." On the other hand, it angers that subset of parents with two freedom-oriented policy positions:
  1. No one censors books by deciding for everyone what goes on the shelves. Selection i's the job and judgment of the professional librarians and the library boards.
  2. After advising their kids, parent should not dictate what material they can examine in the library or have access to records of what they have requested or checked out.
A stark and startling bifurcation separates the parents-rights advocates from Bill of Rights supporters and free-idea digesters. For my own rant on letting kids read what's on the shelves, click here.

Like so many, I have my own preconceptions of librarians, such as their being:
  • Quiet, unassuming public servants
  • Helpers of kids learning to research
  • Guides to the information you need
My wife volunteers in a school library and has the slightly grander view, as depicted in the New Jersey Super Librarian shown to the left. In fact, librarians are often civil libertarians of high order.

Neither of us shares a common view of parents-right types. For the ALA-as-dictator concepts, try some of the self-defined safe-libraries sites, such as Citizens of Positive Education or the Collecting My Thoughts blog. They seem to think kids have very fragile minds and to have real problems not feeling in control of what's on the shelves. Those sites can link to numerous others of similar bent.

Fortunately for the rest of us, these groups and individuals run across opposition to censorship. In fact, the groups are quick to try generally unsuccessfully to hold that they do not want to censor. Considering that their stated aims and actions attempt to determine what books libraries can stock, they are unlikely to be able to make that case.

In the face of this, several of them try to it's-my-money approach that occasionally works. For example, that COPE group states, "We are not for any limits on what people may see and read. However, certain things simply do not need to be funded with the taxpayer’s support and made available in America’s public libraries." That's still censorship, but that version can appeal to fiscal conservatives.

Stifling Schools

Some other factions of this set of parents would like to determine, as in Lexington, both what is on the school library shelves and what they kids read and hear in the classroom. For an example, try the Parents Against Bad Books in Schools site. They have the usual scare tactics, centered on picking excerpts from various books to convince people that there's something terribly immoral out there within their tots' grasp.

On the other hand, they do offer a reactionary, but thorough what-to-do page for like-minded parents. It has specific suggestions on how to challenge or work within the system to remove books and their related subversive ideas. This is refreshingly like portions of Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals. It avoids the annoying whining and demanding, replacing these with action. I can disagree with the premises and aims, but applaud the methods.

The other big library issue is whether kids can expect any privacy in their thought process. Many parents-rights types scream, "NO!" A common battle is over whether libraries will provide lists of materials children have requested or checked out when a parent asks.

In this nation and time, you might suppose the answer would be that even children should be able to read and think without fear of retribution and with a modicum of privacy. After all, both school and public libraries have procedures to prevent minors from accessing adult material. Regardless of how some groups would like to remove all such materials or classify much more as adults-only, they are far from being able to do either.

However, the issue of library records is far spottier. The parents-rights groups won that in Wisconsin, but have repeatedly lost it in most other places. Particularly because this is a skirmish that can be waged very locally as well as statewide, we can all expect this to come to a library near us.

Some groups, such as Family Friendly Libraries, also incorporate the it's-my-money approach. They expand that to a conspiratorial view that librarians had better keep and make available all records...or the terrorists have won. They write, "When libraries systematically purge Internet and borrowing records, they are effectively playing the role of the accomplice who flushes evidence while a criminal climbs out the window. When law enforcement officials arrive at a library with a subpoena or search (warrant), all records which might serve as evidence are gone."

Yet the underlying issue seems instead to be an assertion that minors should have no privacy and that parents have an absolute right to see what the kids check out. The c9ntrol and the assert9oin of new rights appear again.

Tale of Two States

On this, contrast Wisconsin and Massachusetts. The former has pockets of liberalism and swatches of conservatives. The latter is more the mirror image of that.

In Wisconsin four years ago, Rep. Sheryl Albers successfully led the effort to add wording to state law that requires libraries to provide such lists on demand to parents of children 16 and younger. As she said at the time, "It's a parental right."

She helped this become a right, although it had not been before. Her opponents, such as Rep. Marlin Schneider in contrast called it "a major invasion of the right of privacy of children. Children need to understand their rights are protected, and if government won't protect their rights, nobody will." Sen. Fred Risser added, "I think we should encourage kids to use libraries, encourage their minds to be open to new ideas. I don't know why we should have the public libraries be an investigative arm for parents."

By contrast, public policy and law here favor privacy and freedom of speech. Our laws, Chapter 78: Section 7, for example, includes strictures such as "That part of the records of a public library which reveals the identity and intellectual pursuits of a person using such library shall not be a public record..." Along the same line, the Boston Public Library privacy policy reads that "Circulation, registration information, and information retrieval records may not be disclosed except to: 1. The cardholder (with card or other proper id). NOTE: This is regardless of age or relationship. For example, parents cannot be told what materials a child has checked out without the child’s consent..."

On this subject as the other cited in this series, the Boston position differs radically from the parents-rights advocates. Again, it is an issue of control and the new and broadened privileges they claim as rights. They are unlikely to ever get what they did in Wisconsin statewide in Massachusetts or even in any populous area.

However, they might have a shot at school libraries or small public facilities. So far, they don't seem to be going the Alinsky path of joining the decision-making education or library boards. As those bodies are typically elected, it seems unlikely such regressive candidates would get seats, much less earn a majority.

Nonetheless, the twin issues of what's on the shelf and who can peek over the kids' shoulders are not going away.

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Anonymous said...

Good column but you made one major mistake. The Nazis and Hitler did not consider Roman Catholics inferior, eliminatable or anything else evil. Hitler told ever Papal representative he ever met that he was born a Catholic and would remain a good Catholic. After their defeat, the Roamn Catholic church went out of its way to help Nazi war criminals escape their punishment for war crimes against humanity.

massmarrier said...

Well, it's not quite that simple. Hitler and his top guys put the R.C. Church and Catholics in general on his hit list too. Particularly in Poland, Nazis arrested thousands of Catholics and sent them to concentration camps. The official Kirchenkampf against the church was based on it as a threat to absolute power as well. The war delayed the mass attacks on Catholics. They were further down the list than Jews and others, but they were on the list.

Anonymous said...

MM, I must, unfortunately, quibble with one of your assertions. It's the one that states, in essence, "I read everything in the library and I turned out ok". Well yes, you did turn out ok - by the standards of The Homosexual Agenda, as the Mad Dadites would say. They would read your biography and say "See! *This* is what can happen when young minds are allowed to think for themselves! You end up with a normal man who supports sodomite marriage. Burn those filthy not-Bibles!"

massmarrier said...

Hardy har, Laurel. It is to laugh a literate laugh.

Can you imagine raising children in such a controlled way that you don't let -- encourage -- them to read and think, to become whole people.

Living in distrust and fear of ideas must be terrifying.