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Sep 7, 2008

I Heard the Rumor

Tell me where you got the story, or I'll laugh at you.

I support the widest possible freedom of speech and writing. People can and should make their own decisions based on whatever information or rumor which they want. Restricting information is an insult to the independent lives of people. I believe this despite the stupidity of many people who listen to (or reject) any rumor that supports (or confronts) their current views.

There is no requirement to provide public money to exercise this freedom. A person has the right to publish what he wants. I think that right should be almost absolute, discouraging lawsuits for slander or libel (with some doubts, as below). The government does not and should not have the obligation to support any view or all views.

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Libraries are usually funded by government as a service. Using public funds makes libraries political. Someone chooses which books to buy, and there is always an expression of judgement and oversight in how to use the money. It is a "line drawing" game. Some books are bad and others are good, depending on your beliefs and where you draw the line. If you spend on bad books, there is less money to spend on good books.

Would you acquire these (made up) books for your library?

(1) "Donuts Are Good For You", "It's Fun to Drive Fast and Use Drugs", or "Sex Is Better When You Are 16".

(2) "George Bush - Man of Honor", or "Che Guevera - Man of the People".

My sense is almost no one would want the books in (1), and there would be an argument about (2).

If the library owns a copy of "Donuts Are Good For You", must it be available? This is also a political decision.

Governors, Mayors, and librarians have the right and duty to choose, and the public has the right to know what they are choosing. Everyone works for someone, and they should be supported or fired according to the job they are doing.

Governor Sarah Palin is the Republican nominee for US Vice President. It seems that then Mayor Palin of Wasilla, Alaska asked the librarian Mary Baker if she would act according to Palin's judgement, if it came to that, and Baker said no. The public supported Baker in the end. This was abstract, without a list of books to consider.

Baker said that she selected the books in the library according to national selection criteria for libraries of this size. It seems that Baker did not name her sources for recommendations. Baker's position seems to be that she has the final say in operating the library because she is a librarian.

This is a case of actual politics, where people get hired or fired according to their public support. It is not surprising that this would happen at a public library, which is a government service.

I would be interested if there were a list of books that Palin wanted to remove or Baker wanted to keep. It could change my support for Palin or Baker because it would inform me about their judgement and whether they agree with me. Removing or keeping a library book is bad or good depending on where you draw the line. This is standard politics.

Banning Books

Bad reasoning follows incorrect words. "Banning" a book is something only a government can do by making it illegal to print or own. It is correct to say that China bans websites, Saudi Arabia bans the Bible, and Britain bans some books that are negative about Muslim terrorists.

Removing a book from a public library does not ban it. It is no longer free from the library, but is available from other sources. The government owns the library, and can do what it wants. Providing or not providing a book for loan is good or bad purely on belief and politics.

Slander and Libel

I said above, with some doubt, that lawsuits for slander and libel should be almost disallowed. This follows from the irony of "incomplete protection". You increase your risk through lax behavior or too much trust when you overestimate the protection that you have. We want to be protected, so we overestimate the protection to calm our fear. This is true especially when there is some real protection.

Belief: Anti-lock brakes work in the rain.

Result: Less careful, more accidents.

Belief: The police can protect you in your home.

Result: Reduced security, fewer locked windows.

Belief: The government inspects meat and restaurants.

Result: Illness from undercooked hamburgers.

Belief: What I see on TV must be true.

Result: Buying bad products, bad decisions.

Belief: They can be sued for slander.

Result: Assuming they are truthful.

Many people believe that news stories from television stations and newspapers are almost always true because they can be sued if they are mistaken or lying.

Victims usually have little recourse because any lawsuit is expensive and risky. If you are a "public figure", you may sue only for a willful lie or refusal to publish the truth; it is not enough that the reporter be mistaken. A few lawsuits are pursued, and some are successful for large awards, which spreads the idea that a story must be true if there is no lawsuit.

We might be better off if there were no way to sue, so readers would be more skeptical. The public might realize that anyone can be a victim of lies, and it would not be necessary to sue in order to preserve one's good name. The assumption might go back to "innocent until proven guilty" in the public press, not only in a courtroom.

I would welcome a society where repeating a rumor killed the reputation of the gossip, especially in politics. There is no automatic or easy protection from lies and no guarantee of the truth. An open debate about the facts by many people is the only way to approach the truth.

Where you found your "facts" is much more important than your opinion derived from the facts. Laugh at anyone who reports a juicy story without telling you where it came from. Only believe a fact that is "common knowledge" if you personally know it to be true. Ask yourself where you learned it. What is the citation for your own knowledge and belief?


Palin Pressured Wasilla Librarian
09/04/08 - Anchorage Daily News by RINDI WHITE
(via Michelle Malkin)

"The stories are all suggestive, but facts are hard to come by. Did Palin actually ban books at the Wasilla Public Library?"


Anonymous said...

I agree with much of what you are saying, but a lot of what you are saying is very problematic as well:

Removing a book from a public library does not ban it. It is no longer free from the library, but is available from other sources.

That's simply not true for many people, whether they are young and have no ability to purchase, or poor, or have no ability to get to a bigger bookstore, or ability to buy online.

I have several computers and a nice internet connection in my small apartment at a relatively nice apartment complex. I admit to being shocked that there is a line in the apartment's "business center", to use the apartment's old, virus laden, crappy PCs. But there is.

And when I visit the libraries around here, they are filled with people waiting to use the computers.

Just because something is available to you, doesn't mean it's available to everyone, and a free and reliable source of books is a very big deal.

Having a library remove a book is tantamount to banning that speech for much of America. And worse, it gives it the label of "banned and bad" which can make it that much harder for someone one to bring home, or discuss at school.

The government owns the library, and can do what it wants.

They own the army too. And vast tracts of land. And lots of treasuries.

I'd probably be a bad librarian, but I'd much sooner purchase any of the first three books, than either of the second two books.

While I agree library purchases probably do have various agendas behind them, I suspect that the actual purchases aren't as arbitrary as you've made out, and look more like: buy $100 for young adults, buy $200 for contemporary adult fiction, buy $100 for history. And from there, the librarians move to various recommendation lists. But I honestly don't know.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with the above poster. Libraries are a public service, but that doesn't mean that simply being unable to afford books or use of a computer makes it the obligation of the libarary to provide whatever book you want.
Are there books that should be banned? What if a library stocked copies of the "Anarchist's Cook book" or "Poor Man's James Bond" which provide instructions for creating improvised weapons?
What about copies of Hitler's "Mein Kampf?" Put them all on the same shelf and let's see what happens next.

Anonymous said...

How do you feel about guns? I would have assumed that information doesn't kill people, people kill people. It's pretty sad when a nation as a whole legitimises the ownership of firearms, yet stigmatises a knowledge or understanding of the world and society. Books by Adolf and Che (and there is one on guerilla warfare by Che, I have it) are interesting and useful as tools to understand how power and war work, and books like the Anarchist's cookbook will be more useful than a single rifle if there is at some point a need to overthrow a despotic tyrannical rulership in the USA.

I resent gun ownership for a few reasons, but primarily because of the number of accidental deaths. It's pretty hard to die accidentally from the anarchists cookbook, you need to be very active to hurt yourself.

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