Monday, February 22, 2010

The Myth of the Evil ALA

While not quite universal, it has become commonplace among censorship proponents to portray the American Library Association (ALA) as an evil institution. SafeLibraries, and West Bend Citizens for Safe Libraries, to name but two, have been vitriolic in their condemnation of the ALA. Typical claims are that the ALA is stealing control of libraries from local tax-payers, that it advises libraries to violate the obscenity laws and the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), or that it promotes pornography for children. When I try to defend the ALA against such ridiculous charges, I'm accused of portraying them as "angels" who can do no wrong. In fact, all I'm saying is that they're not quite the devils the censors portray them to be. I'd be perfectly willing to face the shortcomings of the ALA, given a realistic discussion of them.

The plain fact is that the ALA is just not a power to be reckoned with. Try rummaging through the endless broken links on their website and you'll see that they are consistently understaffed and underfunded. ALA has no bevy of lawyers to devote to local censorship battles, no authority to hire or fire employees in any library, no control over any library's budgets or expenditures, nor a pile of pornographic books to donate. There is exactly one thing that the ALA can offer to libraries beleaguered with censorship attempts, and that is their knowledge and experience. Having dealt with censorship attempts over and over again, the ALA has accumulated knowledge of what the law does and does not say about Free Speech and censorship, and experience in responding to censors. They can explain articulately what the mission of a library really is, and why best practices support inclusiveness and open access to information and ideas. This one thing the ALA has to offer also happens to be the one thing that censors can tolerate the least.

It is tempting to suggest that the censors portray the ALA as evil because it has so often thwarted their efforts. This is not a realistic assessment, however. As hard as the ALA may work against some censorship efforts, and as important as that work is, it's really not the reason that most censorship efforts fail. Most attempts at censorship fail simply because censorship is illegal in these United States. The occasionally successful attempt is almost always one that "flew under the radar," drawing little attention to itself, and escaping the scrutiny of lawyers and the courts. The censors have never been able to face up to the fact that what they want libraries to do is break the law. Their efforts fail over and over again, sometimes spectacularly, but they never seem to learn.

This creates a huge cognitive dissonance in the minds of the censors. They believe in the sanctity of their goals, and can't accept the notion that the law doesn't support them. This leaves them without a reasonable explanation for why their demands are rejected time and time again.

Arising from unreason in the first place, their cognitive dissonance requires a non-realistic, non-rational solution. That irrational solution is to blame the ALA. The censors convince themselves that they were right all along, that a small group of prudish bullies should be able to tell their local library what to shelve and what not to shelve, that removing books somehow isn't censorship, that the slightest mention of sex, sexuality, or profanity qualifies a book as obscene, and that adults can legitimately be restricted to reading only what is fit for young children. They hallucinate that the world would actually work that way if only the evil ALA didn't interfere.

This mythology of the evil ALA is seriously neurotic, but absolutely vital. Without it, the censors would have to face the fact that their own values and actions are antisocial, based in an unwillingness to live with people who have values different from their own.

No comments:

Post a Comment