04 September 2008

Sarah Palin: Savonarola Redux?

It’s been disclosed that as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, Sarah Palin attempted to ban library books. From Time Magazine:

"She asked the library how she could go about banning books," [. . .] because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. "The librarian was aghast." That woman, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn't be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving "full support" to the mayor.

So you threaten a librarian for not agreeing to ban books that some people might find objectionable? What the heck is that? But apparently, then-Mayor Palin did more than threaten. From the New York Times:

Shortly after becoming mayor, former city officials and Wasilla residents said, Ms. Palin approached the town librarian about the possibility of banning some books, though she never followed through and it was unclear which books or passages were in question.

Ann Kilkenny, a Democrat who said she attended every City Council meeting in Ms. Palin’s first year in office, said Ms. Palin brought up the idea of banning some books at one meeting. “They were somehow morally or socially objectionable to her,” Ms. Kilkenny said.

The librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons [now Baker], pledged to “resist all efforts at censorship,” Ms. Kilkenny recalled. Ms. Palin fired Ms. Emmons shortly after taking office but changed course after residents made a strong show of support. Ms. Emmons, who left her job and Wasilla a couple of years later, declined to comment for this article.

In 1996, Ms. Palin suggested to the local paper, The Frontiersman, that the conversations about banning books were “rhetorical.”

So the “conversations about banning books were ‘rhetorical,’” but the librarian got the sack right after Palin took office; only a public outcry lead to the librarian's reinstatement.

What books did Palin consider banning? There’s been no indication as yet (although someone is pushing a list 'round the nets, it's simply a list of texts often targeted). According to ABC News, Ms. Baker "says she can't recall any effort by Palin to ban specific books from the town library." And here it gets rather interesting:

The local newspaper reporter who covered the controversy, Paul Stuart, claims he was later told by the librarian that Palin wanted three specific books removed from the library.

In her statement to ABC News, the librarian said, "I am unable to dispute or substantiate the information Paul Stuart provided to you."

Stuart said he was confident of his memory. "She may have said that but that's not how it was."

So we still don't know what books might have been targeted; essentially, the librarian offers a simple "no comment." But in case you're thinking it might be that the librarian has truly just forgotten the episode, consider this: After Ms. Emmons reclaimed her job, she stayed for two more years before moving to another Alaskan town. When ABC asked about her departure, she

would not address her reasons for leaving Wasilla, but friends say she felt badly treated by Mayor Palin.

"I don't care to revisit that time in my life," Baker told ABC News.

It's curious that someone immediately involved in this mini-controversy should want to sit on the sidelines regarding the issue, without offering any real clarification, because it implies that something "bad" happened. That being said, we should respect her wish to be left alone. She doesn't want to talk about it, so we should let her be. Chances are, however, that this will continue to unfold over the next few weeks.

And why is this relevent? It's one thing for a private citizen to request a book's removal. It's another question altogether for a public official to do so, especially if that request is based on the official's own "moral" or "social" objections to the material.

*The Anchorage Daily News has a rather detailed article on the drama, "Palin Pressured Wasilla Librarian." It's worth your reading time.

*Here's a newspaper report from the time.

Update2: Factcheck has chimed in.
It’s true that Palin did raise the issue with Mary Ellen Emmons, Wasilla’s librarian, on at least two occasions. Emmons flatly stated her opposition both times. But, as the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman (Wasilla’s local paper) reported at the time, Palin asked general questions about what Emmons would say if Palin requested that a book be banned. According to Emmons, Palin "was asking me how I would deal with her saying a book can't be in the library." Emmons reported that Palin pressed the issue, asking whether Emmons' position would change if residents were picketing the library. Wasilla resident Anne Kilkenny, who was at the meeting, corroborates Emmons' story, telling the Chicago Tribune that "Sarah said to Mary Ellen, 'What would your response be if I asked you to remove some books from the collection?' "
Palin characterized the exchange differently, initially volunteering the episode as an example of discussions with city employees about following her administration's agenda. Palin described her questions to Emmons as “rhetorical,” noting that her questions "were asked in the context of professionalism regarding the library policy that is in place in our city." Actually, true rhetorical questions have implied answers (e.g., “Who do you think you are?”), so Palin probably meant to describe her questions as hypothetical or theoretical. We can't read minds, so it is impossible for us to know whether or not Palin may actually have wanted to ban books from the library or whether she simply wanted to know how her new employees would respond to an instruction from their boss. It is worth noting that, in an update, the Frontiersman points out that no book was ever banned from the library’s shelves.
As the Factcheck author says, "we can't read minds," and Palin's response that these were " rhetorical questions" doesn't actually get us anywhere. All we can go with is the fact that no books were removed form library shelves. However, Palin's alleged question as to "whether Emmons' position [to not remove texts] would change if residents were picketing the library" seems, well, curious. After all, who would picket the library?

By the way: if you’re unfamiliar with Girolamo Savonarola and the Bonfire of the Vanities (not the Wolfe novel, not the Tom Hanks movie) , see this. And yes, this post's title smacks of melodrama. It's all about the book burnin' hysteria.

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