The porn industry is free to make porn films. Theatres are free to run porn films. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is free to award porn films with an Oscar. But do they? Of course not. And if they did, would anyone take it seriously anymore? Of course not. Would anyone allow their children to watch such “award winning” porn movies? Of course not.
A while back, one of my wife’s blog entries on Banned Books Week attracted the notice of Dan Kleinman, the driving force behind Safe Libraries, a nonprofit organization dedicated to (as far as I can tell) holding the American Library Association accountable for the moral corruption of America’s youth. In an interview Kleinman gave to Rory Litwin, he understates his mission a bit: “What I am really doing is reporting what [the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom is] actually doing and linking to the sources where people can see this for themselves.” In the course of the interview, Kleinman repeatedly assigns himself the role of humble “messenger,” doing nothing more than reporting the facts. Surprisingly, there is indeed quite a bit of factual information on the Safe Libraries Web site. The problem is that a great deal of it is presented in a context that is either misleading or misinterpreted. The upshot is that while Kleinman expends a great deal of energy trying to indict the ALA/OIF’s hypocrisy and inconsistency, he is really hotfooting around the likelihood that he opposes the Office of Intellectual Freedom for the pure and simple fact that he is not comfortable with intellectual freedom.
Kleinman might counter my assertion by asserting that the OIF is the agency that is actually opposed to intellectual freedom, citing multiple instances of the OIF selecting materials for library circulation that uphold its leftist political ideals. I would readily grant that, like many institutions, the leaders and policy-makers of both the ALA and OIF have been and will continue to be guilty of double-standards. I would also readily grant that it is entirely possible that many ALA librarians (if not a majority) have liberal ideologies. None of that is relevant to my thesis. As Andy Woodworth at Agnostic, Maybe articulated, book selection is a process fraught with potential dangers; it is a process that librarians therefore take very seriously. Even if it’s true that conservatives are targeted by members of the ALA, that has no influence on whether or not Kleinman is opposed to intellectual freedom. Just because one’s opponent is a dirty, rotten scumbag (and I certainly don’t concede that the ALA is peopled with dirty, rotten scumbags), acting like a dirty, rotten scumbag still makes one a dirty, rotten scumbag.
Back to the question: is Kleinman a metaphorical scumbag? That depends upon how valid his mission is. To evaluate the righteousness of his mission, we must first understand and evaluate the principles that underlie his mission.
Kleinman identifies himself on his Blogspot page as a “library watchdog,” presumably someone who devotes himself to “Educating people and politicians about who controls public libraries. Citizens should, not the American Library Association. If your local library is applying ALA policy instead of local law/policy, learn what can be done to reverse that.” As it happens, a public library is, by definition, controlled by the public, via its elected officials or those who are appointed by the elected officials. If there is a sizable chunk of the electorate that is unaware of this, it shouldn’t take long to educate them. Does the ALA “control” local libraries? Well, no. Most public libraries are members of the ALA, which is a choice — not a mandate. On this principle, I find myself in agreement with Kleinman. Libraries should be under the control of localities and provide the kinds of service that local communities want. But what does all this have to do with the Office of Intellectual Freedom?
Alas, poor Kleinman tends to refer to the ALA quite a bit on the Safe Libraries Web site without making a distinction between the larger responsibilities and guidelines of the ALA and the specific mission of the OIF. I suppose it’s an easy enough mistake to make. After all, the letters A, L, A, O, I, and F are all in the same place on a keyboard.
Or, wait. No, they’re not. Actually, that’s a pretty stupid mistake to make.
Well, regardless, I’m sure that when Kleinman said in the Litwin interview, “Setting aside the ALA’s OIF, the ALA is an outstanding organization,” he meant it. But it brings up a rather bizarre inconsistency in his fact-reporting in his self-described role as “messenger.” A messenger who repeatedly and consistently mistakes one organization (the ALA) for a subdivision of that larger organization (the OIF) is not a very good messenger, because one of the most fundamental “facts” being reported is not being reported accurately. If Kleinman’s main beef is with the OIF, it would make much more sense for him to refer to the OIF and its staff, rather than the ALA. Instead, SafeLibraries.org has pages with headlines like this:
Porn Pushers –
The ALA and Looking For Alaska –
One Example of How the ALA Pushes Porn On Children
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that Kleinman’s fingers slipped on that abnormal keyboard of his, and while he meant to type “OIF,” he typed “ALA” instead. Unfortunately, this is likely not the case, because there is only one reference to the Office of Intellectual Freedom in the entire page (not counting the sidebar). Kleinman typed (or copy-and-pasted) the acronym ALA more than 100 times because he meant to refer to the American Library Association. What this means is that when Kleinman says, “Setting aside the ALA’s OIF, the ALA is an outstanding organization,” he is being one of two things: 1.) ignorant of the content of his own Web site, or 2.) utterly disingenuous. A messenger who is either 1.) ignorant or 2.) disingenuous is not a very good messenger, because it means that the messenger is prone either to overlooking pertinent information or deliberately glossing over it.
The page with that provocative title functions as an instructive case study of Kleinman’s aptitude as a messenger. The page’s headline itself appears to be very forthright: it promises to establish how and why the ALA pushes porn on children, and it uses the book, Looking for Alaska, to make its case. As has proven to be the case so often with Kleinman, that title itself poses a huge problem. In order to establish that Looking for Alaska is pornographic, Kleinman first has to establish a working definition of what constitutes “porn.”
The first few sections of the page discuss a general trend in young adult literature toward weightier, more adult themes and content. Kleinman cites several artists and critics who assert that such themes and content are not appropriate for the younger side of the target audience age spectrum (12-18). Let us, for the sake of argument (and only for the sake of expediency), grant that there is much in YA lit that is not appropriate for middle school kids. We’re not going to bother hammering out a mutually-agreeable definition of what “appropriate” means. We’re not going to argue about which books fit the undefined criteria and which ones don’t. We’re just going to agree that there are certain things that are generally not appropriate for twelve, thirteen, and fourteen-year-olds. (I would argue, though, that once kids are legally able to carry/shoot hunting rifles shotguns, drive cars, watch R-rated movies, smoke, and kill/die for their country, it becomes ridiculous to quibble about whether or not little Johnny and Suzie should have access to Playboy magazines or books that depicts underage drinking.) The age-appropriateness of reading material, however, has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not it is “pornographic.” This is not a matter of semantics. It’s a matter of accepted grammatical usage. To wit, here are the dictionary definitions, paraphrased just a bit :
inappropriate, adj. Not appropriate; not proper or suitable; not fitting or seemly.
pornography, n. 1. obscene writings, drawings, photographs, or the like, especially those having little to no artistic merit; 2. writings, pictures, films, etc. designed to stimulate sexual excitement.
These two ideas cover similar conceptual territories, but those territories only overlap in certain, specific instances. In other words, they are not synonymous. Therefore, if a YA novel is not appropriate for younger teens, that does not automatically mean that it is pornography. Establishing that a great deal of YA literature is not actually appropriate for young adults does not support Kleinman’s thesis that the ALA pushes porn, because books inappropriate for teens are not necessarily intrinsically pornographic. Forgive my redundancy; I wanted to firmly entrench this point because it is crucial to understanding the scope of Kleinman’s erroneous reasoning.
Having spent several hundred words on age-inappropriateness in YA lit, Kleinman dives right into Looking for Alaska. He provides a detailed index of every conceivable potentially offensive word in the book, determining that, on average, there are “1.3 inappropriate words per page.” He also excerpts three scenes from the book that depict frank sexual content. After citing several sources verifying that, yes, the ALA has honored the book extensively, he returns to the discussion of the book’s actual content with the following headline:
The ALA Awards “Looking For Alaska” One of its Highest Honors, Ensuring 12 Year Olds Will Read Hard Core Pornography
Mind you, Kleinman, until this point, has not actually established whether or not Looking for Alaska constitutes “pornography” at all. The fact that the three excerpts on the Web page depict sexual content does not mean that book, as a whole, is pornographic, in the sense that it has “little to no artistic merit” or is “designed to stimulate sexual excitement.” In fact, Kleinman said of the book’s author, John Green, “ The author seems like a hard working guy with a loving, supportive family. He’s clearly quite talented.” The page also features a video of Green asserting in no uncertain terms that the book is not intended to be titillating. If Looking for Alaska leads Kleinman to regard Green as “clearly quite talented,” it’s reasonable to extrapolate that the book does have artistic merit. If Green avers that the book is intended to depict the negative emotional consequences of immature sexual activity, and is designed explicitly not to titillate, that’s compelling evidence that it is not designed to stimulate sexual excitement. In short, Looking for Alaska does not fit the dictionary definition of “pornography.” Yet the above headline not only calls the novel pornographic, it labels it “Hard Core.”
So doing, Kleinman doubles down on an assertion that is demonstrably false based on the evidence he himself has marshaled, as well as his own testimony. I’m starting to think that maybe it’s not his keyboard that’s abnormal.
The quote at the top of my post is from this section of Kleinman’s Web page. The analogy is meant to suggest that genuine art does not feature what he would term depictions of “hard core pornography.” What Kleinman might have learned, had he done so much as a Wikipedia search for Academy Award nominees, is that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science has, in fact, honored many films that depict explicit sexual activity. The page was last updated in 2008, so maybe it would be unfair to throw Dogtooth into the ring, but how about the X-rated Last Tango in Paris? Both Marlon Brando and Bernardo Bertolucci were nominated for acting and directing, respectively. It is relatively common for R-rated films or films with heavy themes and sexual content to receive Oscars. Kleinman apparently meant his Oscar analogy to represent the case that “hard core pornography” doesn’t receive praise from any other arts organization besides the ALA. Instead, his analogy proved that his conception of “hard core pornography” is grievously out of step with the way any informed person thinks of artistic achievement. This is not simply a case of a messenger reporting the facts. This is a case of a man making an assertion that cannot be backed up with reason or evidence.
I’m going to hazard a guess about Kleinman: he has no idea how to read a book for thematic impact. He seems satisfied that the three excerpts he posted are proof enough that Looking for Alaska is pornographic. He is wrong. The three sections he excerpts constitute seven of the 216 pages in the book. That is three percent of the book’s total content. Kleinman completely ignores the arc of the story, the development of the main characters, the stylistic treatment of the themes and content, and the message that the book is trying to communicate. If it’s true that Green was trying to warn kids against the dangers of things like underage alcohol use and casual sex (and there’s no reason to believe he would lie about something so important), should that be factored into Kleinman’s evaluation of the book as a whole?
Kleinman says no.
Only, as Naomi Wolf points out, parents don’t know the book contains sexually inappropriate material they would never want their child to know. The child then reads the book, and, like children everywhere, immediately figures out which pages to dog-ear, then the child tries out the new sexual technique he just learned in the ALA award winning book the librarian recommended that parents were happy to have their children read, and now the child has acquired a sexually transmitted disease, perhaps a deadly one. Ask the ALA about this and they will argue the book needs to be considered as a whole, but we all know the children only remember and act on the sexually charged sections.
Note that Kleinman does not offer any sources for his assertion that children “only remember and act on the sexually charged sections.” This is an absurd claim. Even if it’s true that children dog-ear pages with racy content (and, by the way, that link does not work), in order to find the pages that must be dog-eared, the child still has to read the whole book. Kleinman doesn’t even bother to cite any sources to support his fretting over STD rates in younger kids. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in the 10-14 age group, “17,000 males and females were reported to have a STD in 2006.” That is way too many, but it is not a majority. And that statistic does not reflect the circumstances leading up to the infection. How many were sexually assaulted? How many were infected by someone much older? What kind of sexual activity produced these results? More to the point, how many of these sexual encounters were directly inspired by young adult literature? This is not information provided by the CDC. It is therefore an inference, a guess, on Kleinman’s part that there is a causal link between explicit sexual passages in books and sexual activity among young readers. In fact, no conclusive causal or correlative data exists to support his assertion. When he says “we all know the children only” act on the explicit sections, he is telling a bald lie. Not everyone “knows” that. Not even most people “know” that. A majority might suspect it, but they cannot provide conclusive evidence to support their suspicion.
Kleinman also misconstrues Naomi Wolf’s point. Earlier in the page, he excerpts her Times article on YA lit, bolding the portions that he deems relevant to the case he is making. This is how a key section appears on the page:
And while the tacky sex scenes in them are annoying, they aren’t really the problem. The problem is a value system in which meanness rules, parents check out, conformity is everything and stressed-out adult values are presumed to be meaningful to teenagers. The books have a kitsch quality — they package corruption with a cute overlay.
Since Kleinman’s primary objection to Looking for Alaska is its sexual frankness, you would think that he would marshal support that specifically speaks to that. Yet when he cites a resource, he ignores the more material sentence: “ And while the tacky sex scenes in them are annoying, they aren’t really the problem.” Casually name-dropping Wolf in regard to sexually inappropriate (though not pornographic) material and how much parents don’t know about it does not bolster his case, because Wolf says in so many words that the sex itself is not the problem. Wolf’s primary objection to the sexually-charged narratives aimed at teens is their emphasis on upholding the patriarchal status quo and their fetishization of capitalist, materialist culture. It also doesn’t help Kleinman’s case that Wolf spends most of her article talking about books that are specifically marketed to a higher age bracket (16-18), and that she is either unfamiliar with Looking for Alaska or pointedly did not include it in her jeremiad. What she is practicing is a deep, theoretical reading of the texts to unearth the ideological and political assumptions that are communicated through the narrative. She highlights themes and their implications as exemplified by the overall arcs of the narratives. It is precisely this kind of reading that the ALA award committees likely practice when they determine which books deserve highest honors. When the ALA argues that the book needs to be considered as a whole, they really mean it.
What Kleinman ignores is the plain fact that all these things are what literate people (including many children) care about in a creative work. The people in the ALA who honor young adult literature with awards are concerned with both the craftsmanship of a book and with the perspective that book brings to the concepts covered within its pages. When the ALA endorsed Looking for Alaska, it wasn’t simply endorsing seven pages of explicit sexual activity; it was endorsing the message that those passages, in the context of the rest of the book, were used to convey. Kleinman provides absolutely no evidence that he understands the thematic arc of the book or even the reasons that librarians give for recommending it. For him, those seven pages and 281 cuss words are the book. When he cites quotes from librarians who are offering praise of Green’s narrative as a whole, Kleinman isn’t interested in trying to understand the perspective of those librarians. He files them under a headline that says, “You Can’t Judge a Book By a Librarian’s Review.”
I have news for you, Kleinman. You can’t judge a 216-page book by seven pages, either.
Next we showed that the ALA choose this book as the top book of 2006 for “young adults.” Its description of the book completely ignored the crude sexual content. Twelve year olds are the target audience of this book, according to the ALA.
Kleinman does not provide any evidence that the ALA has specifically recommended Looking for Alaska to 12-year-olds. Kleiman gets the 12-year-old reference from a link to the ALA’s “Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers,” which broadly defines YA lit as being books aimed at kids between the ages of 12 and 18. What that means is that books designed for readers 14 and up would fit into that range. The book may not have been marketed to 12 year olds, but it did fit the criteria for that list. The citations provided by Safe Libraries offer no evidence that the book was recommended to 12-year-olds, but I did see one — the School Library Review — that recommended it for grade 9 and up (which would be the 14 and up age group). ALA’s magazine, Booklist, did not review the book, because it has a policy of not reviewing anything by former employees. Booklist, like the OIF, is not comprised of the entirety of the ALA. An award or honor given by another branch of the organization (such as the Michael L. Printz Award) is not necessarily staffed by the same people (though there may be some overlap). That’s because the mission of each branch is different. Considering the purpose of the Printz Award is to recognize overall artistic achievement, it is not surprising that the description offered by the committee chair does not comment on the sexual content — the sexual content is only a fraction of the larger narrative. Looking for Alaska did, in fact, make it onto the 2006 Quick Pick list. Here is the description:
Green, John. Looking for Alaska. Dutton, 2005. 0-525-47506-0. A year of firsts – drinks, pranks, love, lust, loss.
Remember when Kleinman asserted that “you can’t judge a book by a librarian’s review”? As if librarians are trying to push books on kids by telling them one thing, when the book is actually about something completely different and more salacious? I don’t know about Kleinman, but if the ALA told me that a book was about “drinks, pranks, love, lust, loss,” I would expect “a book about kids gone wild with porn, sex, drugs, alcohol, and death at a boarding school.” And if such a premise did not appeal to me, or I thought that it was not appropriate for my own child, then I would probably choose not to borrow it from the library. It seems to me that the ALA summarized the book’s content as accurately as possible without actually giving a detailed description of the kind of passages that Kleinman found to be so objectionable. If Kleinman was unable to locate this fairly transparent description, he must be a mildly incompetent researcher in addition to being a literary philistine who is cursed with an abnormal keyboard.
Based almost entirely upon the information provided by Kleinman himself, I’ve been led to the following conclusions: 1. Looking for Alaska is not pornography by any reasonable definition of the term; 2. the ALA consistently provided accurate descriptions of the novel’s themes; 3. the novel was not “pushed” on underage children, but recommended to teens based on the book’s artistic merits. With these conclusions in mind, I think it’s fair to say that the thesis contained in the Web page’s title — “How the ALA Pushes Porn on Children” — is misleading and based on faulty reasoning. The bigger question, though, is why Kleinman continues to hold the ALA responsible (for crimes it hasn’t committed) when the ultimate responsibility for a child’s moral instruction ultimately lies elsewhere: with his parents?
Kleinman addresses that. One of the more baffling sections on the “Porn Pushers” page is a set of e-mail exchanges he has had with people who reached out to him in a genuine attempt to lead him back to the path of sanity. The first e-mail is from a high school senior. In response to his query, Safe Libraries wrote:
Note that you read the book in high school. Well we have no problem with that. Actually, we have no problem with anyone reading any book they want to read. The problem arises where the book is placed into the hands of children much younger than you, in combination with the identity of the persons doing the pushing and the inappropriateness of the material. We have no problem with parents giving children any book whatsoever. Librarians, however, are a different story. For that matter, anyone other than the parents is a different story. 12 years old are, for the most part, too young to be exposed to oral sex, porn movie descriptions, and pervasively vulgar language, especially where–and here’s the key–someone allows them access to the material, and even recommends or awards, that their own parents would not let them read. Librarians are doing that. Looking For Alaska is not a book most parents of 12 year olds would let their children read. Yet librarians give it a fancy award they literally made up for the purpose of pushing such books and that ensures the book will get wide circulation, including wonderful posters in public libraries nationwide; and eager parents, trusting the ALA to be trustworthy, allow the children to read such a book–not knowing, of course, of its true contents, precisely because the librarians misled them about the contents. Boy, that was a long sentence, maybe I should go back to highschool! So librarians complain parents must be involved in a child’s book selections, but those same librarians mislead the parents about the full contents of the books — they set up the game so they win either way.
There is a lot to unpack in just this one paragraph. First of all, Kleinman falls back on his patently false and unsubstantiated assertion that the ALA specifically targeted 12-year-olds with its promotion of Looking for Alaska. It is true that part of the purpose of the ALA promoting certain books is to guide member libraries to do the same. The endgame of this promotion is, of course, to induce younger readers to read more, and to read books of higher literary quality. But Kleinman fabricates the idea that librarians are literally putting pornographic material into the hands of little children. As I’ve argued earlier, Looking for Alaska does not qualify as pornography, since its primary purpose is the opposite of cheap titillation. The Printz award is designed to recognize high artistic achievement, not to gloss over sexual content. Explicit sexual content, as evidenced by hundreds of canonical or near-canonical works throughout the human arts, can be used to advance a higher, more artistic agenda — even one with a sound moral. I’ve also argued (based on the evidence of the Quick Pick list) that the sexual content of the book is implicitly acknowledged by the ALA, and other library resources that review new books have not only made mention of the sexual content, but recommended it for an age range above the 12 year olds. The trajectory of all this evidence suggests entirely the opposite of what Kleinman asserts; rather than the ALA trying to subvert the moral development of 12 year old children, it seems that the ALA is trying to confirm traditional moral values in a higher age bracket.
For the sake of argument, though, let us momentarily assume that Kleinman is right. Let us posit that the ALA knowingly misleads parents and puts pornographic material into the hands of 12 year olds. Kleinman asserts that “12 years old are, for the most part, too young to be exposed to oral sex, porn movie descriptions, and pervasively vulgar language, especially where–and here’s the key–someone allows them access to the material, and even recommends or awards, that their own parents would not let them read.” This sentence is a great example of Kleinman’s faulty reasoning. He connects three unrelated premises: a.) that 12yo’s are too young to experience some content, and b.) that someone allows them access to this content, and c.) that parents are against exposing their children to this content. Let’s explore each of these premises in a little more depth to tease out their relevance to Kleinman’s indictment of the ALA.
Premise (a.): “12 years old are, for the most part, too young to be exposed to oral sex, porn movie descriptions, and pervasively vulgar language.” Kleinman does not offer any evidence to support this assertion, but, in my own experience, I would agree to the extent that many people with whom I have ever interacted would say that 12yo’s are, as a rule, too young to be exposed to oral sex, porn movie descriptions, and vulgar language. This does not establish the premise, however, as a universal moral principle. The fact that most adults would probably agree (for various reasons) is more of a social convention. In some places (but not all), this convention may even be codified by obscenity laws. And even in those places, not everyone would agree on what constitutes an “obscenity.” But this premise does not have anything to do with teenagers over the age of 12. It has nothing to do with the ALA, book awards, recommended reading lists, or the availability of such materials.
Premise (b.): “someone allows them access to the material, and even recommends or awards.” If someone recommends material that contains explicit sexual content, they are not necessarily implicitly endorsing the sexual content for its own sake. It is reasonable — in the context of literary standards — to presume that the material is recommended because of its overall literary achievement. Furthermore, in the United States, it is customary that parents, not public employees, are responsible for the moral upbringing of their children. It is not the responsibility of a public employee (in this case, a librarian) to make a judgment as to the intrinsic morality of a work. What the librarian can do is provide the information that other people and organizations, who have the training and expertise to evaluate literary achievement, have endorsed the book. The book may even align with what the librarian personally believes to be acceptable for a certain age range. But neither the ALA nor a local librarian presumes to supplant a parent as the master of a child’s moral instruction. The purpose of a library is to offer to its patrons the most diverse, highest quality selection of reading materials that the library can afford and maintain. If a parent disagrees with the moral stature of certain materials, that parent has the right — and the self-imposed responsibility — not to allow his child to read it. If a parent is not able to police what his child checks out of the library, then that parent must either borrow the materials himself or personally research the content of each book before passing it along. (Or both.) In this day and age, it is inconceivable that a parent could remain ignorant about the content of any given book, now that the Internet makes such information available so easily. Not only do most libraries now offer free Internet access, but if a concerned parent wanted to know if a book would be inappropriate for his child, the parent could explain to the local librarian what his personal standards of appropriateness are, then have the librarian offer the relevant information. In the end, the final authority — and responsibility — belongs to the parent, not the librarian, or any organization affiliated with the library.
Premise (c.): “that their own parents would not let them read.” Just because a parent would not allow his child to read a particular book does not mean that libraries should not make that book available to children of parents who would. If the parent does not want the child to read the book, it is up to the parent to make sure that the child doesn’t read it; it is not up to the librarian. Again, libraries are not in the business of the moral instruction of every child in America. They are in the business of providing an array of materials to parents from different backgrounds, priorities, and value systems. What one parent considers to be obscene may be what another parent considers to be a moral tonic. Premise (c.) only holds true if premise (a.) is true. Premise (a.) is not universally true, therefore premise (c.) is irrelevant to the equation.
Another important element of Kleinman’s overall crusade is the fact that he singles out libraries — and the ALA as emblematic of libraries — as those to be held accountable for the presence of “pornography” in the lives of children. Elsewhere on the page, Kleinman specifically exempts authors, publishers, booksellers, and (of course) parents. He says (in an amazing display of cognitive dissonance), “Actually, we have no problem with anyone reading any book they want to read. The problem arises where the book is placed into the hands of children much younger than you, in combination with the identity of the persons doing the pushing and the inappropriateness of the material.” The identity of the persons doing the pushing has nothing to do with the inappropriateness of the material. Either the material is inappropriate or it is not. (Parents are the ones who determine what is appropriate, just in case that point was lost.) If the material is inappropriate, it should not be pushed. Yet Kleinman says that anyone should be able to read anything he/she wants. Obviously, Kleinman has major problems with intellectual consistency. He appears to be trying to leave some leeway for himself to wriggle out of sounding like a moral authoritarian who’s trying to tell everyone else what is morally acceptable, but in doing so, he undermines whatever authority his argument has mustered. But the fact that Kleinman considers the identities of the pushers to be significant merits a little debunking in its own right.
If a child goes to Barnes & Noble, sees a display promoting Looking for Alaska, and takes a copy off the shelf to peruse, to what extent is the bookseller culpable for “pushing pornography” on the child? How is it possible that a pornographer (which the author, by definition, would be, if the author authored a piece of pornography) is not culpable for putting porn in the marketplace? The library would have no pornography to push if pornographers didn’t make it. And why does Kleinman so steadfastly refuse to indict the values of parents who might deem a book like Looking for Alaska to be acceptable for teenagers — or even 12yo’s?
As to authors? They can and should write whatever they like without any limitation at all.
Publishers and reviewers can do a better job in providing such information, true, but their job is to sell books, and they are selling books, and salesmen generally don’t announce the warts, so I see no problem with salesman selling books.
The problem is the OIF. It advises, correctly, that parents are responsible for book selection. At the same time, it makes recommendations for parents that do not provide accurate information. So when those parents actually do get involved, and when they trust the ALA for a list of reading material, they end up being misled, and, for example, their 12 year old ends up reading a graphic description of oral sex.
To recap, let’s do a checklist:
Should authors write whatever they want, even if it is hard core pornography for children? “They can and should write whatever they like without any limitation at all.”
Should publishers and critics be held accountable for providing false information about the content of a book? “Publishers and reviewers can do a better job in providing such information, true, but their job is to sell books, and they are selling books, and salesmen generally don’t announce the warts, so I see no problem with salesman selling books.”
Even if that book is being marketed to children? “[T]heir job is to sell books, and they are selling books.”
Aren’t parents ultimately responsible for what their children read? “[The Office of Intellectual Freedom] advises, correctly, that parents are responsible for book selection.”
So, what, exactly, is your problem with the OIF? “[I]t makes recommendations for parents that do not provide accurate information.”
You’re saying that ALA member librarians deliberately lie to parents about the contents of books? “[L]ibrarians complain parents must be involved in a child’s book selections, but those same librarians mislead the parents about the full contents of the books — they set up the game so they win either way.”
But why would librarians do this? What possible motivation could they have to put “pornography,” as you call it, in the hands of little children? “I simply do not know why the OIF wants children to access inappropriate material.”
We’ve come full circle. Oh, and did I mention that Kleinman said the following about Looking for Alaska on the Safe Libraries site?
“I agree with you that book is not porn, that it is well written, and the scenes are as you describe. I do not know or never noticed if is was against physical intimacy.”
He never noticed what author John Green asserted was one of the main themes of the book. More importantly, Dan Kleinman admits that the book that is his lynchpin in the case against the ALA as “porn pushes” is, in his words, “not porn.”
The pop you just heard from halfway around the globe was my head exploding.
Trying to untangle Kleinman’s crusade is, as you can gather, a rather maddening task. As I wrote this blog post, I was constantly asking myself what his ultimate goal is. Is he really striving simply to be what he claims, a “messenger”? It’s entirely possible. I’m sure that he believes that this is all he is trying to do. As he explains in another letter on the “Porn Pushers” page:
I am perfectly within my rights to tell people the ALA is not providing notice of x-rated content in children’s books. The people can then decide on their own what to do. As it stands now, the ALA misleads them, and they do not have freedom of choice. That is taken from them by the ALA.
If I take Kleinman at his word, then he really is doing no more or less than trying to provide as much information to the public as possible. In that case, what we need to examine is his effectiveness in that role.
Look at the quote directly above. Consider the prejudiced assumptions made within it. Kleinman tells people that the ALA is not providing notice of X-rated content in children’s books. In the context of Looking for Alaska, he is not, in fact, talking about a “children’s book,” but a book specifically marketed to “young adults.” That is a fundamental difference. Kleinman also makes the assumption that the content of the book is “x-rated.” There is no consensus on this. The “X” rating originated from the film industry, and it was originally used to denote movies deemed inappropriate by the MPAA for anyone under the age of 17. Seventeen is several years from the age of 12. The X-rating was not just a suggestion. Anyone under the age of 17 literally could not purchase a ticket. As an analog to young adult fiction, it simply doesn’t work, because young adult fiction is designed for an audience that would have been refused admission to a film rated X. This analogy shows that Kleinman either fundamentally misunderstands the terms he is using to describe the book, or he is mistaking his own, personal value judgment of the book’s content with a judgment that would normally be made by experts within the industry. If the latter is true, it means that Kleinman believes that his own value judgment trumps that of the experts, the ALA/OIF. That is not a mere reporting of the facts; it is presenting an argumentative viewpoint. Kleinman further asserts that “the ALA misleads” parents. Again, this is demonstrably false. Every synopsis I’ve seen of the book, from both the ALA and other organizations, appears to be consonant with the overall story told in the book. The ALA has not mislead anyone. It even provided a description that referenced the sexual content. Kleinman hasn’t done his homework, and he is propagating outright lies about the role the ALA has played in promoting the book. As for whether or not the ALA has taken freedom of choice from parents… well, Kleinman simply seems to have a poor grasp of the English language. He certainly would benefit from going back to high school. Or grade school.
The phrase “freedom of choice” is fairly open ended, but I cannot think of a context relevant to this issue at all in which any parent has been denied that freedom. A parent has the freedom to choose whether or not his child reads a book. A parent has the freedom to choose whether or not to investigate the content of a book before/after his child reads it. A parent has the choice to question the ALA or follow its recommendation. A parent has the choice to read the book along with his child. A parent has the choice to decide whether or not the content of the book is appropriate for his child. A parent has the choice to decide whether or not the book is pornographic. Nobody forces the child to borrow the book; nobody forces the parent to allow his child to read the book; nobody forces either of them to read it; nobody forces a parent to keep silent about his opinion of the book. There is no conceivable way in which a parent has been denied any freedom of choice regarding Looking for Alaska or any other ALA-endorsed book. Kleinman is either so stupid that he literally does not understand the words that he is typing or he is being disingenuous.
Since it’s already clear from his own inability to reason that Kleinman is not very bright, let us explore the latter option, which returns us to the issue of whether or not he is comfortable with intellectual freedom.
As a just-the-facts-ma’am messenger, it is clear that Kleinman has failed in his endeavor. Besides misconstruing, misinterpreting, or ignoring relevant facts (all of which are deadly practices for anyone who claims to be an accurate reporter), Kleinman does not construct his reporting in an unprejudiced manner. The “Porn Pushers” page is clearly structured as an argument. He refers to “evidence,” all of which is presented in the form of an outline meant to lead readers to a single, inexorable conclusion. Since Kleinman is following the conventions of persuasive argumentation, drawing connections between disparate facts and assertions in order to convince the reader of something, it is undeniable that he is interested in enacting social change. What is most irksome to me is that Kleinman adamantly refuses to acknowledge any agenda beyond being a so-called “messenger.” Despite the abundant evidence that he does have an agenda, he asserts that he has none. Since I don’t believe for a minute that anyone with such intent focus in his life’s work (discrediting the ALA and its OIF) could possibly be so moronic as not to have any larger agenda at all, let me speculate. I won’t pretend that I have any hard evidence to back my claims. I’m not going to play the part of empiricist. I am going to provide an armchair psychoanalysis of Kleinman that I believe is applicable to others like him.
Like me, Kleinman probably considers himself to be a conservative. Unlike me, however, Kleinman is not a democrat. I don’t necessarily mean a capital-D, political party-affiliated Democrat, but someone who believes that the best societal structure yet devised by the human race is that which places its future and guidance in the hands of the people. I consciously echo C. S. Lewis when I assert that a democrat believes in vigorous, open, honest debate. A democrat believes in considering all material viewpoints and adopting the best one, based on the available knowledge at a given time. Democracy is a slow, messy process that inevitably takes wrong turns and blunders along the way. It is my belief that comprehensive education and public libraries are integral institutions to any successful, functioning democracy. To the greatest extent possible, these institutions should be responsible for providing a wide array of knowledge to the citizenry so that the citizenry can be free to make informed choices. In order to protect against ideological monopolies or the tyranny of the majority, democracies safeguard the rights and viewpoints of those who are outside the majority or who stand in direct opposition to it. In practice, this means that libraries provide access to information and viewpoints that are anathema to most people; some of these materials may even advocate beliefs and ideas that are morally wrong or repugnant. It is the price we pay for living in a democracy. If rational debate and informed decision making cannot take us in the right direction, if dangerous ideas continue to persist, it is because one of our founding principles is that every individual has the right to make his voice heard. We have seen throughout human history societies in which the majority of citizens, while convinced of their moral superiority in their own time, have been convicted by their descendants of being moral monsters whose inexcusable actions have reverberated down through the ages. To the extent that secular democrats worship anything, they worship the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America. The First Amendment is the bulwark against which the resolute, restless tides of ignorance and insecurity continue to batter. The ALA, in practice, does not always adhere to the spirit of free expression. In spirit, however, they are the champions of the most uncomfortable, most vital truth of a free democracy: we must be free to fail.
There is no such thing as a failsafe for failure. Countless societies have tried it. Almost all of them slid inevitably toward authoritarianism of various sorts, to the detriment of their cultures and with tragic humanitarian consequences. Rather than face the possibility of losing our human dignity with the loss of intellectual freedom, we value the right of dangerous, heinous, reprehensible ideas to sit alongside virtuous, progressive, moral ideas on our bookshelves and in our arenas of public debate. If bad ideas cannot be defeated by good ideas in the realm of rational discourse, then they cannot be defeated. Frankly, I don’t believe that bad/dangerous ideas will ever be completely eliminated. Which means that the imminent possibility of failure — of societal collapse, of authoritarian nightmare — is always with us. It is something every thinking citizen carries with him in his heart, and it is a responsibility each of us takes very seriously. Strictly speaking, I don’t know if I have faith in humanity to guide itself, without divine inspiration, to a better future. But democracy is the best option we have, and I am secure enough in my religious faith and my faith in the grand experiment of a democracy of the people to be all in.
When I read what Kleinman has to say, I do not see the writing of a man who is secure in his ideas. I see a man who is terrified that his ideas of what is right and good will not triumph. That, in a marketplace of ideas, his values are not strong enough to compete on the same playing field as others’. I see a man whose agenda is to circumvent the competition itself, who feels that the responsibility he should take upon himself as a parent is a responsibility better adjudicated to other authorities. He does not want his shelves to be a place of competition; he wants them to be a place of indoctrination — of his own viewpoint.
As is the case with many authoritarians with insecurity issues, he does not want to appear as a proponent of indoctrination and proscription. He wants to appear as a democrat. But he is not. His agenda is transparent, but he is not secure enough in his conviction to come right out and acknowledge his endgame. His agenda is to disseminate his perspective to a large enough extent that the ALA’s position will become destabilized; his endgame is to destroy the place of authority currently enjoyed by the ALA and the OIF. In its place, he would like to have a majority of likeminded people dictate what will and will not be tolerated in our nation’s schools and libraries. Likeminded viewpoints will be tolerated; opposing viewpoints will not be. Perhaps Kleinman is afraid to acknowledge this even to himself. His propensity for willful blindness is abundant throughout his Web site. In a sense, he is delusional, but instead of attempting to mount a principled, intellectually honest campaign against censorship as practiced by the ALA, he has elected to mount a counter-campaign that is as committed to stamping out intellectual competition as his opposition.
People like Kleinman are not to be pitied, despite their obvious intellectual handicaps. They are terrifying, but they should not be feared. I considered the possibility that by devoting so many words to someone like him, I am only granting legitimacy to his crusade by taking it seriously. Well, I do believe it should be taken seriously. Authoritarians won’t simply go away if you ignore them. If their ideas are not combated and defeated, these ideas will only proliferate in the absence of competition. It is important to demolish not only their spurious assertions, but to attack the root cause of their activism: an inherent distrust of the democratic system. Democracy in and of itself is not to be trusted; it demands active participation on the part of good, intelligent, humane individuals in order to succeed. Its work is never done, and it will always be in danger of failing. But circumventing it is not a viable option. If Kleinman were interested in participating in democracy, he would be authoring books that adhered to the aesthetic principles he valued, or he would spend his time advocating books that did, rather than making ridiculous, hateful accusations such as the idea that librarians are “porn pushers.”
Are my assertions regarding his subterranean motives rational? No. Substantiated by evidence? No. Unlike Kleinman, I am going to make an upfront assertion about my agenda. I see what he does as a slap in the face to intellectual freedom. His argumentation, his twisting of “evidence,” his evasive self-righteousness, and his authoritarian attitude are all offensive to me. Do I want him to stop what he’s doing and direct his efforts toward something more fruitful? Yes, but not through coercive measures. Do I want to silence him? No. All I have done is attack his ideas in the hope of discrediting them. It is my hope that, at some point in the future, Kleinman comes to his senses and stops his foolish campaign against the ALA. There are a lot of things on SafeLibraries.org that are of legitimate value, and I have already conceded that censorship should be fought on every front, especially when it comes from its self-appointed guardians, such as those in the ALA. I don’t want to silence Kleinman; I want to change his mind about his crusade — or, failing that, to persuading others who are inclined to agree with him to agree with me instead. That way, instead of using his freedom of expression to slander and silence others, he will simply engage them openly and honestly. In other words, I hope to bring him to the table of democracy. Maybe I’ll even throw in a proper keyboard. ☕